The Young Ones

thinks we shouldn’t dwell on age when assessing the life’s work of a poet

“My head is like some ridiculous barn packed full of stuff I want to write about,” she said. “Images, scenes, snatches of words . . . in my mind they’re all glowing, all alive. Write! they shout at me. A great new story is about to be born – I can feel it. It’ll transport me to some brand-new place.

“Problem is, once I sit at my desk and put them all down on paper, I realize something vital is missing. It doesn’t crystallize – no crystals, just pebbles. And I’m not transported anywhere.”

The classic Murakami novel Sputnik Sweetheart deals with many themes on writing, particularly the relevance of youth. Sumire, a writer, worries that she cannot grasp the complexities of the world – she’s collecting too many pebbles and not enough crystals. She is scared for many reasons, not least of which that her writing is failing because she is still too young.

We live in the age of novelisation, where writers are praised for the length of their works, the attention to detail. It is assumed then that the kind of character analysis required by the post-modern narrative needs to be attended by an older hand. People often argue that youthfulness is almost always synonymous with naïvety. That writers should patiently wait until the moment when the world can be sure that their genius was not just a fluke, and can then be praised.

As a student that writes, hearing these things makes me wonder whether I need to be left to stew for a few more decades – sit back and wait for the wrinkles to grow in before I decide I have anything to say.

When 32 year old Sarah Howe won the TS Eliot Prize for her poetry collection Loop of Jade earlier this year she was met with praise and acclaim, but also criticism. Many were quick to suggest that she was too young to win the prize and that her poetry didn’t stand up to the calibre required of such an award.

Ben Okri was also 32 when he won the Man Booker prize, the youngest ever to win at the time. In fact, the average age of a winner of a Booker prize is 48.8 – so slow and steady wins the race? I’d like to disagree.

There are many parts of Howe’s poems that I don’t like. Her descriptions of the Yangtze river are too subtle, I feel like I’m being lost in a stream of words that don’t hold enough meaning. There’s a distance in what she describes too. It’s as if the memories she’s recalling have to be looked at through a glass.

Often these things are so under the surface that it’s easier to dismiss them as cynical writing or literary handwringing. But isn’t this the strength of opinion, not a weakness of the author’s age?

The views people form of Howe’s work aren’t a result of who she is, her age or her gender, but what sort of person comes across in the words themselves.

It would be easy to just accept that literature is often judged by the person, but let’s not forget that age cannot give us a valid obligation to dislike the quality of somebody’s literature. As university students, we often wonder whether we are ready for the world – judging success by what you achieve and not who you are is critical. Let others complain that someone is too young to write well. I’d rather praise (or detest) a piece because of what it is than who wrote it.

As Ernest Hemingway said: “All you have to do is write one true sentence.” Age is just a number.

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