By NICHOLAS HAMBURGER, Exclusive to the CCJN
Judith Viorst famously chronicled childhood with a series of picture books, most notably the acclaimed “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” and a pair of poetry collections, one of which she titled “Sad Underwear.”
But in recent years, Viorst has trained her authorial sensibilities on the other end of the spectrum: old age. Since 1968, when she was in her late thirties, Viorst has published a book of poems corresponding to each decade of her life, and as time has marched on, she has increasingly turned her attention to the subject of elderliness.
Viorst opined on finding happiness late in life at the Jewish Community Center on Tuesday night, punctuating her talk with selections from her newest “decade book,” titled “Nearing Ninety.”
“It’s a challenging time of life. People are depleted in various ways; people are dying at a rapid rate,” Viorst said in an exclusive interview with the Crescent City Jewish News before the event. “But there’s laughter to be found, even if the laughs may be harder won and a little bit more rueful.”
Viorst had no difficulty drawing laughs on Tuesday. Indeed, her ironic sense of humor, as well as the new poems she chose to read, delighted the crowd, which was largely composed of septuagenarians, octogenarians, and other near-nonagenarians; in fact, of the dozens of people in attendance on Tuesday night, only one had yet to reach an age included in Viorst’s series of “decade books” — this reporter.
Viorst said she associates her frequent use of humor (as well as a heightened sense of anxiety and guilt) with her Jewishness, adding that this triumvirate informs many of the poems in “Nearing Ninety.”
“These are qualities that I can probably get good grades in,” she noted. But Jewishness features even more prominently in the work of many of her favorite writers. “I love Philip Roth. I think he’s very, very funny. I like Bernard Malamud. I used to like Saul Bellow, but his late work started to get more sententious with time.”
As she ages, Viorst, 88, has begun memorizing poems by the likes of Yeats and Hopkins — a more interesting way to preserve one’s memory, she suggested, than doing crossword puzzles — and she counts “Sailing to Byzantium” and “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day” among the verse she’s studied. Have these poets influenced her own work? “The poems in my ‘decade books’ in no way resemble the poets I revere, like Dickinson, Eliot, Yeats, and Hopkins.”
Viorst began composing poetry as a child, and at age seven, she started sending her poems to women’s magazines to which her mother subscribed, among them Lady’s Home Journal, Women’s Home Companion, and Good Housekeeping.
“I didn’t get a word published until I had a child of my own,” Viorst points out. As a burgeoning writer and a new mother, Viorst learned to write under less than ideal circumstances. Her children screaming, the sound of a Disney film in the background — these potential disruptions didn’t affect Viorst when the task was at hand. “I don’t need atmosphere. I don’t need to be in the mood. I don’t need peace and quiet. And I don’t need a muse,” she says convincingly.
Her ability to structure her time, and to adhere to that structure, might help as well. “I’m a very disciplined person. I don’t have a wild, crazy spirit that I have to force into a routine. No, I’m very comfortable with a routine,” she said. “When I wrote this very big book, ‘Necessary Losses,’ which had a three year deadline, I divided it by year. Then I divided it by month. Then I divided it by week. Then I divided it by day. And I stuck to that very rigidly.”
But if Viorst is inflexible when it comes to her writing schedule, she advocates adaptability for those nearing 90, specifically regarding romance. “Redefining love to suit late life realities is one way to make for a better late life,” Viorst said, recalling a quote from Santayana she’d recited earlier in the evening. “‘To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind,’” Viorst read, “than to be hopelessly in love with spring.’”