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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 616

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“Losing the Marbles” is a seven-part poem meditating on the various aspects of old age, especially as they relate to poetry. Section 1 is written in the manner of a romantic meditation, indicating the impetus for the poem. The poet has lost his date-calendar and cannot remember what he is supposed to do that day—nor can he remember what he and his friends discussed at lunch. He comments: “another marble gone.” Then he remembers; they were describing what each one’s “Heaven” would be. His was to be an acrobat in old Greece when the Parthenon was a living building. The coming of dusk brings to mind a line of the famous twentieth century Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” He puns, saying that evenings were graces allowing a man to tumble gracefully “into thyme,/ Out of time.”

Section 2 is in the style of a metaphysical ode. Complicated metaphors fill it—a storm like a silver car, a rivulet of ink in which the poet must dip, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by means of the Golden Treasury. It is an ironic comment on the inability of poetry to stem the storm of old age. Section 3 at first is a puzzle: It is a series of disconnected phrases arranged helter-skelter on the page. It seems to be describing a passionate sexual encounter at first, then it modulates into a lament not only for the body’s ineptitude but also for the good memories that present failures obscure.

Section 4 is in rhymed couplets. It begins by insisting that old age should not blot out the artistic achievements of the past. “My text is Mind,” he says. He first points out the monetary value of even an inch of a Cézanne canvas, and then creates what appears to be the central aphorism of the poem: “Art furnishes a counterfeit/ Heaven” where ideas are immortalized, even if those who hold them cannot be. The section concludes with puns on marble (“All stone once dressed asks to be worn”; “topless women” choose worn stones at the beach “To use as men upon their checkerboards”).

Section 5 solves the puzzle of section 3: It is written in modified sapphics and contains, in the exact same spot on the page, all the words of section 3. It turns out to be a rational comment on the passion and lament of section 3. It begins by pointing out that the human body is the preferred symbol of young poets and that a majority of them scorn “decrepitude/ in any form.” In old age, the body “plunders what we cannot,” and the poem presents images of death. Merrill concludes that old poets learn how to make poems of homecomings, even though the “marble” for such works comes from “no further off/ than infancy.”

Section 6 begins with three stanzas in ballad form, pointing out that “pattern and intent” make up for aphasia. The second half is in free verse and chronicles the return from a voyage on an ocean liner. The passengers are full of gossip, especially about friends who have “flipped” or who have died; but, they say, do not mention death.

Section 7 is in blank verse and relates that the poet’s lover gave him a pack of marbles for his birthday, and he in response embedded them in the slats about the pool. The pool then is described as a “compact, blue, dancing,/ Lit-from-beneath oubliette.” Both the marbles and the pool reflect the stars, and the poet sits near them talking about the heavens (as in section 1). The pool and the marbles become an image for art of all kinds which, by reflecting the heavens above, provides spiritual knowledge nowhere else available.