On “On Turning Ten”

“You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
 but that is because you have forgotten”
— Billy Collins, “On Turning Ten”

“Bucket listless” is what my friend Michael terms it: the absence of any grand strivings or stratagems towards which one arranges the contents of one’s days and weeks. Its causes are diverse and probably include a mix to good things (contentment with what one already has, an aversion to arse-kissing, the suspicion that much success is luck and therefore is unsavory) and bad (electronic-entertainment-induced numbness, timidity, the absence of strong role models). Whatever its reasons, listlessness seems to be pretty common amongst the people of my age. Milan Kundera makes the surprising observation that it’s actually the young who experience more nostalgia then the old: since youth lack a panoply of experiences, he notes, the few they do have invariably assume an outsized place in the constellation of their memory. On the flipside, because the old know they have less time to live, they are too busy trying to accomplish things and enjoying the fruits of their labor to waste time to glancing back at supposed glory days.

Indeed, when I scan through my quotebank, I find almost all expressions of exhaustion at the world’s offerings appear in the minds and mouths of young people. Chief among figures in this genre (which, let’s just state in advance, is populated predominately by whiny white males) is Hamlet, who’s aged somewhere between 25 and 30 and who declares in Act I “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable,/seems to me all the uses of this world.!” The canonical Russian example comes from the pen of the 19th-century Russian Romantic Mikhail Lermontov, who, when he was 25-year-old, wrote at the end of A Hero for Our Time, “We are no longer capable of great sacrifices either for the good of mankind or even for our personal happiness, since we know that happiness is impossible.” Tracing the arch of human affinities to a more intimate level, and moving to our own soil, there’s those famous lines the 27-year old F. Scott Fitzgerald made the 27-year-old Jay Gatsby think to himself when he commits to courting Daisy Fay: “his mind would never romp again like the mind of God.” And, for the last item on this sample sadness platter, we’ll return to Kundera, who displays a typical French focus in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: “The thirteen-year-old child, who aroused himself in secret by staring at a stolen picture of a naked dancer, had begun to feel that the women of his own planet, endowed with the oversimplified triangle of one set of genitals and two breasts, were erotically underendowed. He dreamed of a creature with a body offering ten or twenty erotic regions instead of that miserable triangle, a body offering inexhaustible sources of arousal to the naked eye. What I am trying to say is that even when he was still very much a virgin, he knew what it meant to be bored with the female body. Even before experiencing climax, he had made a mental voyage to the farthest reaches of arousal. He had exhausted its possibilities.”

But if it’s somehow characteristic of the young to reach such statements of exhaustion, it’s somehow also precisely their youth the supplies them the inertia to keep on keeping on; the vigor of their bodies rejects the reasoning of their minds. Accordingly, the 24-year-old Ivan Karamazov declares in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “Do you know I’ve been sitting here thinking to myself: that if I didn’t believe in life, if I lost faith in the woman I love, lost faith in the order of things, were convinced in fact that everything is a disorderly, damnable, and perhaps devil-ridden chaos, if I were struck by every horror of man’s disillusionment — still I should want to live. Having once tasted of the cup, I would not turn away from it till I had drained it! At thirty though, I shall be sure to leave the cup even if I’ve not emptied it, and turn away — where I don’t know. But till I am thirty I know that my youth will triumph over everything — every disillusionment, every disgust with life. I’ve asked myself many times whether there is in the world any despair that could overcome this frantic thirst for life. And I’ve come to the conclusion that there isn’t, that is until I am thirty.”

Scanning through such selections is hopefully a helpful reminder that world-weariness is hardly novel. Actually, if you Google ngrams “listless,” you’ll notice we’re experiencing a local max of the emotion compared to the ‘90s, but we’ve got nothing on the heyday of Romanticism. Now, I don’t presume to conjure up the secret to growing up right now as I wait for my lunch to heat up, but at least permit me to share something else that might help, a cute little poem by Billy Collins that was recommended to me some years ago by my high school English teacher. Here it is:

On Turning Ten

The whole idea of it makes me feel
 like I’m coming down with something,
 something worse than any stomach ache
 or the headaches I get from reading in bad light — 
 a kind of measles of the spirit,
 a mumps of the psyche,
 a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.
 You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
 but that is because you have forgotten
 the perfect simplicity of being one
 and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
 But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
 At four I was an Arabian wizard.
 I could make myself invisible
 by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
 At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
 But now I am mostly at the window
 watching the late afternoon light.
 Back then it never fell so solemnly
 against the side of my tree house,
 and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
 as it does today,
 all the dark blue speed drained out of it.
 This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
 as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
 It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
 time to turn the first big number.
 It seems only yesterday I used to believe
 there was nothing under my skin but light.
 If you cut me I could shine.
 But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
 I skin my knees. I bleed.

“On Turning Ten” is a lament at life’s fleeing enchantment, similar to those we’ve already seen. Except it’s from a 10 year old, which makes it funny, since 10 years old is way to early to be staring off into the “late afternoon light,” don’t’cha think? After all, how can this 10-year-old know true sadness — he hasn’t even been to middle-school school. (off topic sorta, but: while it’s not unusual to hear people end up marrying their high-school sweetheart or even childhood sweetheart — has anyone in the history of the world ever wedded their “middle-school sweetheart? Surely never). In all likelihood this attitude came to little Billy not from within but from without. Perhaps he’s been reading too many grown-up books, “in bad light,” as he says. In fact, the concluding stanza — which, in contrast to the rest of the poem, features rhymes — bears a suspicious similarity to Percy Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” (which I quoted at the bottom of my poop piece last post). At the end of the second-to-last canto of Shelley’s ode, we read:

— — — — — — — — — — — — — If even

I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy [the West Wind] wanderings over Heaven,

As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed

Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne’er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.

Oh! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!

I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

Do we have a plagiarizing prepubescent on our hands? Our 10-year-old Billy seems to have simply swapped a speedy cloud for a speedy bike, and turned a rose’s thorn into a sidewalk. This suspiciousness caused me to take to the Google to learn more, and it turns out Billy the Kid is not a 10 year old at all! What a fraud. Instead, Billy Collins is a 50-some-odd-year-old poet, and a well-decorated one at that. This changes the way the poem is read quite a bit. Now, rather than being a child’s adieu to childish fantasy, it instead is the opposite — a way that an old person might be able to maintain his sense of youth by plunging himself back into the consciousness of a lad a fifth their age. The major technique Collins employs to conjure the cute precociousness of the piece is juxtaposition of hifalutin’ abstract things with the language of kids: “a mumps of the psyche, “I walk through the universe in my sneakers,’sidewalks of life.” (This last example is perhaps the best of the abstract-concrete game since a sidewalk is quite literally made of concrete). Had the poet have had more time perhaps we might have witnessed him also push around his applesauce of existential angst or slurp a Gogurt of Gestalt. Now, maybe Billy Collins isn’t the greatest versifier in the world, but this poem strikes me as a healthy example of how to hold on to childhood, especially compared to many other options out there that afford one the re-creation of childish recreation only through abdication of the faculties gained by growing older.

Sure, for the older Collins the childhood experiences aren’t as fresh or spontaneous as they were the first time around, but at least he’s able to relive them — the invisibility-inducing milk drink, for example — with the new pleasure that comes from self-awareness. And this self-awareness allows him to be able to command play in a way he couldn’t before; by virtue of writing this poem, he can channel the childishness into a form others can partake in as well.

This last point — the communicative feature of the older Collins’s exercise — sheds light on why Shelley’s ode was chosen as the text to riff off of. For, besides cluing us in to the fact that “On Turning Ten” wasn’t actually written by a ten year old (okay, so probably you weren’t fooled), the nod to “Ode to the West Wind” draws our attention to what’s missing from the pre-pubes’s musings (and hence our own, to the extent we’ve thought similar thinks at some points in our life). Shelley’s poem is a plea for the West Wind to take his words and sweep them into others’ hearts in order to improve both their lives and their political circumstances. He asks the wind to help him fill the “pestilence-stricken multitudes” and with “living hues and odours.” This desire to use his words to contribute to others is mimicked by Shelley’s choice of terza rima, in which the middle end-words of each tercet breath life into the next by supplying them with their rhyme.

In “On Turning Ten,” by contrast, the speaker Billy the Kid calls for no moral change and makes no outwards movements towards others. He is focused entirely on his own suffering. He begins by speaking with an interlocutor (“you tell me it’s too early to be looking back”). But later, this “you” turns into the impersonal “you” of life (If you cut me I could shine.”). In the meantime, he’s chosen to cut himself off from others: “This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself;” and decides “it is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends.” Without reference to other people, he cannot imagine a way out. Whereas “Ode to the West Wind,” ends with a sense of cyclical redemption (“If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”), Billy makes no attempt to see a positive out of his predicament. Instead, he “lies in bed”, missing opportunities to have others shake him out of his sadness, remind him of their own so he’s moved to action, or experience their own childishness in his presence to give him a vicarious hit of innocence. This solipsism is foreshadowed in his choice of remembrances (or imagination of them, if we take “lie” as being used by the elder Billy ironically). Turning invisible by drinking milk, for example, anticipates his move of cutting himself off from others. Similarly, the forgoing to his bi-cycle is a good image to show his repudiation of the cyclical nature of life (echoed in the terza rima Shelley celebrates in his ode). So, in summation, Billy has said goodbye to his imaginary friends but left no space in his heart to say hello to real ones. The elder Billy’s choice of Shelley, then, serves as a warning of the danger of a certain strain of Romanticism that responds to losing innocence with further retreat into the self.

“On Turning Ten” doesn’t touch on the opposite but equally damaging Romantic proclivity — to respond to it with excessive acts willfulness. Examples of characters who do this include Don Quixote and Goethe’s Faust (who so that he can always live life at “a frenzied round of agonizing joy” makes a deal with the devil that “If I should bid the passing moment stay, or try / To hold its fleeting beauty, then you may / Cast me in chains and carry me away”). Indeed, Shelley himself probably was probably guilty of attempting such excessive egoistical reenchantment, and it seems to have ruined him. He wrote “Ode to the West Wind” and a number of other poems of political awakening when he was 28, but two years later — when he was thirty — he probably killed himself (though it’s not known for sure whether it wasn’t an accident). A more profitable way many of the Romantics found to escape from their own egoism without it turning into some ubermenschean undertaking was by turning to objective studies like science. Goethe got involved in the study of light and colors, for example, and Coleridge resolved “before my thirtieth year I will thoroughly understand the whole of Newton’s works.”

“There is nothing that kills an idea like expressing it in personal terms,” says Wallace Stevens, and since I’m trying to finish off typing this I’ll end with what I’ve been trying to fill my time with. It seems like one of the most important things to do after college is find such pursuits that prevent one from being consumed by one’s job or entertainment. (A girl next to me yesterday on the plane said “I don’t have enough hobbies to work less than 40 hours a week, which was pretty sad to hear). For the first time in your life perhaps can afford to get interested in things that will take a long time to develop and won’t see an immediate pay-out. So I’ve been getting decently interested in the study of languages. Studying languages seems like a great way to get one out of one’s head by forcing one to conform to objective structures (grammar, syntax, vocabulary, etc…). And since you can’t “beat” a language, you’ll know it’ll be something you’ll have the pleasure of continuing to chip at for many years. It also provides a pretty good excuse for opening yourself up to people, places, and habits of thinking that’ll take you out of your own stale ways. And probably the most delightful thing (and what ties this back to the heart of this post) is that it’s a kind of way of feeling like a child again. After all, when you start out you’ll be babbling less intelligibly than a three-year-old, and after five solid years of study maybe you’ll begin to resemble a nine-year-old. For the first time in years, you can take simple joy in things like counting, labeling colors, naming animals, telling knock-knock jokes, etc… that if you did in English would have much less interest. Plus, when you’re starting out, you don’t have the vocabulary to express anything other than simple joy and wonder at the objects of the world. It’s amazing how much your vocabulary conditions your thinking; when you only know a few words, there’s no places in your head to know how to expressing rants or callousness or whining, so a lot of that goes away.

Speaking of whining — wine! That other entrance back into the enchantment of childhood available only to adults. As a send-off regalo to ye Spanish speakers, here’s a wonderfully delicious bonus poem by Jorge Luis Borges to accompany you “on the night of jubilation or on an adverse day”:

Soneta del Vino:

¿En qué reino, en qué siglo, bajo qué silenciosa 
 conjunción de los astros, en qué secreto día 
 que el mármol no ha salvado, surgió la valerosa 
 y singular idea de inventar la alegría? 
 Con otoños de oro la inventaron. El vino 
 fluye rojo a lo largo de las generaciones 
 como el río del tiempo y en el arduo camino 
 nos prodiga su música, su fuego y sus leones. 
 En la noche del júbilo o en la jornada adversa 
 exalta la alegría o mitiga el espanto 
 y el ditirambo nuevo que este día le canto 
 otrora lo cantaron el árabe y el persa. 
 Vino, enséñame el arte de ver mi propia historia 
 como si ésta ya fuera ceniza en la memoria.