By Gail Evans
On December 3rd I met with 85-year-old George Held in his West Village apartment to interview him about aging. He taught in the English Department at Queens College for 35 years and was a Fulbright lecturer in Czechoslovakia under Soviet rule. Held 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 as we talked.
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 5:00, 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 all 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 of them 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 her 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 a stroke, heart attack, or 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 up 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 that 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 I realized that vision wasn’t for me the more I read and thought.
Continued next issue.