They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’
Of all poems that I have read, those popular enough to have renewed the bloodstream of the colloquial, this line by TS Eliot must have been used by everyone at some point of time or the other in their lives. “The bald spot in the middle of my hair”, the line before this, is a realisation just waiting to strike. In it is the barometer of visual age. Eliot’s brilliance lies in trapping a common fear in words and making it look pretty, a bit like the horror movie makers.
Hair and its economics rarely affect a child, and so it was not until high school that I encountered these fears. In my school hostel I encountered for the first time weekly schedules of applying henna on hair for “body” and “volume”, led on by seniors but soon diligently appropriated and followed by keen disciples. It was here, in the high ceilinged second floor hostel in Calcutta that the first rumours about thinning hair began to enter my consciousness. I call it “rumour” consciously — it is because I could never spot any “bald spot” on the heads of my hostel mates. And so began an initiation into this phrase, holding in it both anxiety and vanity.
A woman supposedly told her this: “I’m taking medicines to become thin, not for my hair to grow thin. But the result has been just the opposite — I’m expanding and my hair’s becoming a zero size model.”
“There’s no one in the world who doesn’t complain about losing hair,” a hairdresser told me once. She understands my curiosity for hair stories and often indulges me with the most outrageous ones. A woman supposedly told her this: “I’m taking medicines to become thin, not for my hair to grow thin. But the result has been just the opposite — I’m expanding and my hair’s becoming a zero size model”. Not wrinkles and its cousins but thinning hair seems to be the first barometer of ageism and hence the consequent anxiety about its loss of girth. I have to confess that I am insensitive to insecurities about ageism — I appreciate anxieties about possible fractures and memory loss, but I cannot appreciate worries about lines on skin or loss of hair, both unrelated to good health.
I sometimes discover these worries and speculations in poems. Take this one by Vanessa Place for instance.
No more elegies of youth or age, no polyglottal ventriloquism. …
No more metaphor, no more simile. Let the thing be,
No more poet-subject speaking into the poem-mirror, watching the mouth move, fixing the thinning hair. …
No more reversals of grammar if as emphasis. (‘No More’)
The poem ends with a fantastic critique of lookism: “No more retinal poetry”. I particularly love how the person “fixing the thinning hair” is the “poet-subject”. The mirror, mind you, is no Narcissistic prop; it is a “poem-mirror”. What can that mean? What is the “thinning hair” an index of, in this line? Poets and their hair — does poetry cause hairlines to recede faster than numbers do to bankers? “No more reversals of grammar” becomes a sad moral about hair loss then.
For a moment I think about my favourite poets — not about my favourite lines or poems, but their hair. Gender sneaks into my memory, and soon I find myself thinking, after having failed to discover “thinning hair” in the women poets I admire, exclusively about the male poets. The oldest among them wore his hair rather long, even when it turned completely white; some let wispy hair graze their forehead, as if in continuance of the memory of when those strands of hair had company; some shave off the little that has remained after poetry has claimed its debts. I once wanted to begin an essay with a line like “Poets are known to have gone through various stages of balding since the time of Shakespeare…”. It’s happened to me during a lecture on The Tempest, when I’ve misread “… they’ve all melted into thin air” as “melted into thin hair”.
There are many poems with the title Thinning Hair. Literary biography and back stories being such necessary tools of our times, I grow needy — even greedy — to see photos of these amateur poets, but their personal blogs and websites supply too little information. Take this one by Elise Davis:
He looks at me and smiles,
Under the bar lights I notice
his hair has thinned a little in the part,
Just a little of his black wavy hair … (Thinning Hair)
Why is it always the aged? I’ve always wondered why thinning hair never invokes the more affectionate image of a newborn, always with thin hair.
A few days ago, I read the cleverest poem on thinning hair. All of us, irrespective of sex, have got used to receiving helpful information about increasing the size of a certain part of the body. How hair transplant clinics have managed to invade my inbox is a question for Google to answer. One is, of course, now used to deleting without reading such messages. But this one had a sender with a beautiful name — “Rapunzel”. And then a child rhyme: “Chubby cheeks, dimple chin/ Rosy lips, teeth within/ Thinning hair, very fair/ Eyes are blue, lovely too/ Lover’s pet, is that you?/ Yes, yes, yes”. Below it the instruction: “Read again”.
Only one word had been changed: “Curly hair” had become “Thinning hair”. The process of that transformation had moved from literal to metaphorical, that replacement of the adjective attending hair.
“Is that you? Yes, yes, yes”?