A few months back I interviewed Jasper Carrott. He talked at length about his career but at the end of our conversation he concluded that comedy was “a young man’s game.”
He may well be right. Of all the artistic forms comedy is arguably the most challenging because it’s hard to keep being funny, plus there’s a constant stream of young guns eager to be king of the hill.
However, we’re often too quick to dismiss people as being past it once they hit a certain age. It’s fair enough in sport where the body reaches a natural peak beyond which there’s only one way to go. But this isn’t the case in art, literature, music, or even comedy.
Even so, age is still often seen as a barrier to creativity and sometimes artists themselves give credence to the idea. In his poem Sailing to Byzantium, WB Yeats laments that “An aged man is but a paltry thing/ A tattered coat upon a stick.”
Despite his harsh characterisation of old age Yeats himself continued to write into his 70s.
He’s not alone in finding fresh inspiration in his later years. Despite being virtually blind, Claude Monet produced his astonishing series of water-lily paintings inspired by his garden in Giverny when he was in his 80s. Similarly, such luminaries as Giueseppe Verdi and Arthur Miller were producing thought-provoking work as octogenarians.
Which brings me to Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The man dubbed “America’s everyman bard” turned 95 this week. For those who don’t know who he is, Ferlinghetti is a poet, whose 1958 volume A Coney Island of the Mind is one of the biggest-selling poetry books ever written, with over a million copies in print.
He’s also co-founder of the City Lights bookstore and publishers in San Francisco which, since opening in the 1950s, has become one of the most famous independent bookshops in the world.
It was a literary focal point for the Beat Generation and famously helped launch Allen Ginsberg’s career and over the years it has published works by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Charles Bukowski and Sam Shepard.
Ferlinghetti’s latest poetry pamphlet, Blasts Cries Laughter, was published earlier this year and follows Time of Useful Consciousness, a more extensive collection which came out in 2012. In the world of poetry (Philip Larkin used to average around one volume a decade) this is beyond prolific.
The trouble is we’ve become conditioned to be scared of growing old, we’re constantly encouraged to hide signs of ageing as if it’s a weakness, and we shouldn’t be. Which is why people like Lawrence Ferlinghetti are an inspiration to us all.
As another great American, Mark Twain, once remarked – “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”