The ever clever and often contrarian Malcolm Gladwell has a piece in this week’s New Yorker that brings a refreshing perspective to the old saw about artistic genius residing primarily in the young.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve paid increasingly more attention to the creative breakthroughs that happen after 50. And it may surprise you to find out how many extraordinary examples of the long arc of creativity there actually are.
Gladwell highlights a few in the excerpt I have included below, but here is a sampling of some that have inspired me: Poet Amy Clampitt published her first full-length collection, The Kingfisher, at the age of 63; Frank Lloyd Wright, viewed by many as a has been when he designed and built Falling Water, went on to have a breathtakingly prolific last act; Emily Kngwarreye, the most successful Aboriginal Australian artist ever, did not take up painting seriously until she was nearly 80 years old. There are many others.
I’ve been a painter since I was 19. What I love most about these accounts of later-in-life creative bursts is just further evidence of what I have experienced in my own, very personal domain: Regardless of any objective measures of progress or improvement, my work feels more authentic to me than it ever has. The ardor and drive haven’t diminished at all. Creativity and sexuality (which share the same chakra in the lower body) have been two very steady pulsars in my life. Which is, in the face of everything, very good news.
Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity—doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth. Orson Welles made his masterpiece, “Citizen Kane,” at twenty-five. Herman Melville wrote a book a year through his late twenties, culminating, at age thirty-two, with “Moby-Dick.” Mozart wrote his breakthrough Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-Flat-Major at the age of twenty-one. In some creative forms, like lyric poetry, the importance of precocity has hardened into an iron law. How old was T. S. Eliot when he wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (“I grow old . . . I grow old”)? Twenty-three. “Poets peak young,” the creativity researcher James Kaufman maintains. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the author of “Flow,” agrees: “The most creative lyric verse is believed to be that written by the young.” According to the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, a leading authority on creativity, “Lyric poetry is a domain where talent is discovered early, burns brightly, and then peters out at an early age.”
A few years ago, an economist at the University of Chicago named David Galenson decided to find out whether this assumption about creativity was true. He looked through forty-seven major poetry anthologies published since 1980 and counted the poems that appear most frequently. Some people, of course, would quarrel with the notion that literary merit can be quantified. But Galenson simply wanted to poll a broad cross-section of literary scholars about which poems they felt were the most important in the American canon. The top eleven are, in order, T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock,” Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” William Carlos Williams’s “Red Wheelbarrow,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” Ezra Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife,” Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” Frost’s “Mending Wall,” Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man,” and Williams’s “The Dance.” Those eleven were composed at the ages of twenty-three, forty-one, forty-eight, forty, twenty-nine, thirty, thirty, twenty-eight, thirty-eight, forty-two, and fifty-nine, respectively. There is no evidence, Galenson concluded, for the notion that lyric poetry is a young person’s game. Some poets do their best work at the beginning of their careers. Others do their best work decades later. Forty-two per cent of Frost’s anthologized poems were written after the age of fifty. For Williams, it’s forty-four per cent. For Stevens, it’s forty-nine per cent.