By Gail Evans
I met with 85-year-old George Held in his West Village apartment to interview him about aging. Held taught in the English Department of Queens College for 35 years and was a Fulbright lecturer in Czechoslovakia under Soviet rule He is also a prolific poet, editor, translator, essayist and book reviewer. His poems are understated and wry, full of “knife-edged” observations, as one reviewer wrote. Michael Minichiello featured Held as a “Village Original” in these pages in June of 2012! What follows are mostly Held’s own words.
I’m lucky to have my writing. I still write every day; as any writer must do. Many of my poems are political and some are either directly or indirectly about racism, but I strive to avoid moralism and propaganda. I also write “nature” poems, mostly about nature’s fragile beauty. The challenge is to find the right forms and metaphors for what I want to say, and to pare down to succinctness. My four children’s books are about nature. It was fun writing them because every now and then I could sneak in a multisyllabic word.
The morning is when I have my energy, so I’m up at five, exercise, have breakfast and start writing. I’m pleased that my new book of poems has just been published, and last September I took first prize for a poem I wrote for a contest. It was elating to win that prize! My days aren’t equally bright. But I’m blessed with a good memory. I don’t forget where I am, or people’s names and faces. I could lose that tomorrow, though. At our age, you just don’t know.
Also, I have a young wife, very active and upbeat! She’s really important in my life, my saving grace. We share a good, loving relationship. And I’m good friends with my first wife. Both help keep me going.
When I was a boy, I thought I would die at 68. Back then, 68 was pretty old. My mother died at 77, and I thought then that I would probably live to the average of my mother’s age at her death and my father’s. He died at 88, so I’m ready to go at any time. I will be 85 in January, if I live until then. You never know, I might die of stroke, heart attack, get run over by one of those bikers on the sidewalks that I yell at all the time! I don’t like feeling weaker, with aches and pains I don’t want. But I exercise to ease the stiffness from my joints, and I still carry my groceries up three flights of stairs to my apartment. Sometimes I stop to catch my breath, but mostly I try to make it in one continuous climb. One continuous climb! There might be a poem in that!
If you’ve learned anything, you are wiser and more at peace when you get older, but that’s tempered by the reality you can lose it all at any moment. The human body is designed to live only so long, then it goes haywire. And the older you get, the more people that you know die. I have a high school classmate who’s determined to outlive me. I say, go ahead! I don’t want to be alive and decrepit. But we have no say in it. We’re puppets at the whim of some unknown puppet master. I don’t believe in an afterlife or God. At one point in college I thought of the ministry. But the more I read and thought, the less that future seemed right for me.
I think you don’t want to be old and have regrets. I know I made mistakes and would probably have done some things differently, but regret is a fool’s game. I like Edith Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien.’’ The only thing I might do differently now is, I’d teach environmental studies rather than literature. In my time, the academic study of literature was a thriving field, but now, the valuing of literature is over. Still, I enjoyed teaching more than 40 different courses at Queens College, even becoming a Shakespeare scholar toward the end of my career. I find something new in Shakespeare each time I read him. And I’m still in contact with lots of my students.
No, I don’t have regrets. But I value myself less now than when I was young. All my life I’ve been the beneficiary of white privilege—straight, white, good-looking privilege. Although I don’t think I’ve taken advantage of it consciously, there you are. I’ not the hotshot I thought I was when I was president of my college fraternity and captain of my high school’s basketball team. Someone had to be those things in that era, someone white and privileged, and it’s okay that it was me. Now, white privilege is dying out. I think all these people in their gated communities have to take account of where they are in relation to this new country. The strivers now are mostly immigrants and people of color. And I am all for them; it’s their turn to achieve what they will.
I’m an optimist on social change, but I’m also a skeptic. Experience has taught me to be skeptical because, God knows, you can’t put your faith in much today. We’re finding out that even our beloved constitution is feeble and our country in danger. I think we’ll never again be the democracy we once were. And look what’s happening to the planet. If Trump doesn’t get re-elected we may find a way to survive longer, but I think we’re doomed.
Have I lived a fulfilled life? I don’t think in those terms. With age, I fit in less and less with social norms and definitions—maybe because my opportunities to travel have given me a broader perspective, maybe because I’m out of sympathy with the status quo. A fulfilled life is something we were all encouraged to seek, that’s why we went to college get our degrees, as though we’d be given keys to unlock a magic kingdom called fulfillment or whatever. But I don’t necessarily assent to the assumptions that many of my contemporaries bring to our conversations, and I don’t like to be nice just to be nice. So, I would rather spend my time alone or writing. I value my friends highly, I really do. But again, they’re all dying off. My best friend in California lives a quarter of a mile from the evacuation line in the last California fires. “We are all alone,” as Hunter Thompson said.
George Held goes to his window, pulls up the blind, and shows me the moon, which has just risen. “My wife and I love the moon,” he says. “It’s half-moon now.”