An older woman wearing a straw hat with a pink sash smiles for the camera

Two Poems About Aging Well by Rita Dove

This post is part of a month long spotlight on the poet Rita Dove, which we are concluding, fittingly, with poems about aging. They are both included in her collection On the Bus with Rosa Parks. Also don’t miss her new collection, published August, 2021, Playlist for the Apocalypse.

Against Self Pity

Against Self Pity
It gets you nowhere but deeper into 
your own shit--pure misery a luxury
one never learns to enjoy. There's always some
meatier malaise, a misalliance ripe
to burst: Soften the mouth to a smile and it stutters; laugh, and you drink spills onto the wake
of repartee gone cold. Oh, you know
all the right things to say to yourself: Seize
the day, keep the faith, remember the children
starving in India...the same stuff you say to your daughter
whenever a poked-out lip betrays
a less than noble constitution. (Not that
you'd consider actually going to India--all
thos diseases and fervent eyes.) But if it's
not your collapsing line of credit, it's
the scream you let rip when a centipede
shrieks up the patio wall. And that
daughter? She'll find a reason to laugh
at you, her dear mother: Poor thing
wouldn't harm a soul! she'll say, as if
she knew of such things--
innocence, and a soul smart enough to know when to get out of the way.


A straw reed climbs the car antenna.
Beyond the tinted glass, golden waves
of grain. Golly! I can't help
exclaiming, and he smirks--
my born-again naturalist son
with his souped-up laptop, 
dear prodigy who insists on driving the two hours to the jet he insists I take.
(No turboprops for this
old lady.) On good days 
I feel a little meaty; on bad, 
a few degrees from rancid.
(Damn knee: I used it this morning
to retrieve a spilled colander;
now every cell's blowing whistles.)
At least it's still a body.
He'd never believe it, son of mine, 
but I remember what it's like
to walk the world with no help from strangers, 
not even a personal trainer
to make you feel the burn.
(Most of the time, it's flutter-heart
and Her Royal Celestial Mustache.
Most of the time I'm broth
instead of honey in the bag.)
So I wear cosmetics maliciously 
now. And I like my bracelets,
even though they sound ridiculous, 
clinking as a skulk through the mall, 
store to store like some ancient
iron-clawed griffin--but I've never
stopped wanting to cross
the equator, or touch an elk's 
horns, or sing Tosca or screw 
James Dean in a field of wheat.
To hell with wisdom. They're all wrong:
I'll never be through with my life.

Response to the Poems about Aging

Note: Don’t read my response until you’ve thought about the poems for yourself. Poetry is meant to mean different things to different people. Here’s a great guide to reading poetry if you feel unsure of yourself.

This month, as a part of our celebration of poet Rita Dove, we are looking at the ways that the juxtaposition of poems affects their meaning. These two poems appear in the middle of the second to last section in Dove’s collection, On the Bus with Rosa Parks called “Revenant”.

“Revenant” is a word that sounds familiar, but it you are like me, you don’t know exactly what it means. It sounds like a lot of familiar words that Dove probably wants us to think about: relevant, revive, and revelation, to name but a few. Revenant, however, is “someone who has returned, especially from the dead.”

Just because we are getting older, that doesn’t mean we are over. If you’re like me, you might feel like you’re in the best time of your life. And that’s what Rita Dove has to say in these poems about aging.

Against Self Pity

All the little annoyances of life that we aren’t supposed to think about are in this poem, along with all the reasons why we aren’t supposed to think of them.

But really, the poem seems to say, the problem is more than our inability to rise above them. Our problem is out inability to totally and completely bury ourselves in our misery.

But is that a problem, in the end? What happens to people who go there?

Meanwhile, our children, especially our same gender children, sit next to us. Our little mini-me’s (even when they aren’t so little anymore) judge us. We are sort of happy when they do because then they may go further in life than we ever imagined. On the other hand, we remember when we felt the same way about our mothers that they do now, and we know what’s coming for them.

When my brother sees me, especially when my hair is just cut, he always looks like he’s seen the ghost of his mother.


A götterämmerung, in case you were wondering, is the “collapse of society or a regime marked by violence and disorder”. The Germans have a way of coming up with words that sound like what they mean, don’t they?

In this poem, the speaker thinks about her son as he drives her to the airport. We are happy when our kids are thoughtful and take care of us first: it can definitely makes life easier. I know I would personally prefer a two hour car ride to a major airport over having to hassle with a puddle jumper and changing planes, which is what he’s helping her avoid.

And some days we feel like garbage; those days when all of our parts seem to be falling off at once.

At the same time, however, we know we are pretty freaking awesome. It may be hidden under our wrinkling skin and failing bodies, but it’s there.

Another one of life’s great ironies is that just when we get to the point when we finally appreciate the cool people we are, we simultaneously arrive at the point when others start to dismiss us. Which is fine. We don’t need them anymore anyway.

Well, the ride to the airport is nice. And it’s nice to find out that we raised our children to be good people too.

Overview of our Month with Rita Dove

When I look back at the poems featured in this month’s spotlight, I see that all of them come from the section “Freedom”: Bird’s Eye View” except for the first poems and the two featured today. Since the poetry selection process is completely subjective (I choose the features from the poems I mark when I read the book), I suppose these choices might tell me something.

I like freedom? No question. I like books? I want chances? Well, duh. But also that I’m not done yet.

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