cummings - A Complete Examination of Hair Loss As a Topic of Poetry

THE BALDING HEAD HAS BEEN GLORIFIED IN STANZAS “WITH EXQUISITE EXPRESSION” IN BOTH OLD AND MODERN POETRY.

The poet is obsessed, I say, with all things of the hair.
He praises locks and curls and tufts, in colors dark and fair.
Yet ignorant is he, it seems, of pates and scalps so bare –
Why can’t the constant rhymer see the beauty that is there?

That little piece of doggerel (composed by yours truly) is only partially true. There are some positive poems about baldness, but you have to hunt to find them.

As is so often the case with depictions of baldness in the arts and entertainment world, the “default” position is to treat baldness as a sign of infirmity, a loss of physical appeal or a subject for humor – even among the giants of the poetry world.

For example, the protagonist of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” one of the most important poems of the 20th century, has “a bald spot in the middle of (his) hair,” a fact which is intended to buttress his depiction as a man whose youth is fading.

William Butler Yeats’ “The Scholars” opens with “Bald heads, forgetful of their sins/Old, learned, respectable bald heads,” going on to paint a picture of these bald scholars as pretentious and unable to understand true emotions. The subject of e.e. cummings’ “This Evangelist” is a toupee’d charlatan.

Hair loss in poetry: Shakespeare and beyond

But there are exceptions. Shakespeare, that renowned dramatic versifier (and possessor of a finely gleaming pate), devotes forty or so lines to the subject of baldness in “The Comedy of Errors,” telling the world among other things that “What (Time) hath scanted men in hair he hath given them in wit” and “There’s many a man hath more hair than wit.”

“As is so often the case with depictions of baldness in the arts and entertainment world, the ‘default’ position is to treat baldness as a sign of infirmity, a loss of physical appeal or a subject for humor – even among the giants of the poetry world.”

Then there’s Po Chu-Yi, the great Chinese poet of the 9th century, who in “On Becoming Bald” tells of the sheer joy of losing his hair: no more combing, no more washing, no more sweaty hair. As he lets a cool ladle of water trickle over his head, he rhapsodizes that “Now I know why the priest who seeks Repose/Frees his heart by first shaving his head.”

In general, though, it’s the more contemporary versifiers who are likelier to have a positive view of hair loss. Jo Shapcott, in “Hairless,” opines, “You can tell, with the bald, that the air/speaks to them differently; touches their heads/with exquisite expression.” Raj Nandy writes “In Praise of Baldness,” commenting that “A bald head remains forever confident and bold,” and George Hunter’s “Hair Impaired” talks of a man who was bald because his head “Rubbed the top of the bed/Whenever he had an affair” and concludes that baldness is “just a proof of your virility.”

Along the same lines, Sandra E. Morris sings of the “Beauty of the Bald Head,” finding that a “shining dome beckoning/To my womanliness/Strikes a chord within” and imagines “tenderly cradling that head/Between breasts.”

Nikhil Parekh treats the subject of hair loss in numerous poems, including “Bald,” in which he lists the advantages of hairlessness and prays to be reincarnated in his next 100 lives as a bald man, and “Shaven Scalps,” in which the image of a bald dome reminds him of a sparkling idol of God.

A modern and thought provoking poem on hair loss

One of the most interesting of contemporary poems on the subject of hair loss is “Upstairs Downstairs” by Los Angeles poet Kenny Rose Butts. In this work, Butts contrasts two people who live in the same building. The man upstairs is dealing with hair loss and wears a toupee, while the man downstairs has lost a leg and wears an artificial limb. The poem is very effective at painting a situation familiar to many balding men: hair loss is an issue that connects with them on a very deep, personal level, that may bring up a whole host of fears related to one’s looks, one’s age, one’s confidence. It can affect them on a very deep, very personal level. Yet society, while on the one hand harboring negative thoughts about a bald man, also treats hair loss as a superficial problem and considers a man vain for being so concerned with it – especially when compared to a person with a “real” problem, such as the loss of a limb.

Butts very cleverly and carefully winds his way through this tangled mess, stating that “his loss/was nothing in comparison/to lost body parts/it was that very fact/he couldn’t counter-attack” and emphasizing that both the man upstairs and the man downstairs are after the same thing. By wearing an artificial leg, the man downstairs is saved ‘from the eyes/that see his missing foot/before they see the man that stands/before them.” For the man downstairs, the hairpiece “gave him heart/to be seen whole/first.” Ultimately, both men want “to be/viewed/as they see themselves/as they are/whole.”

It’s a lovely poem and one that speaks to the very human desire to be seen and valued for what is on the inside rather than for the surface aspects that so influence first impressions.
As Butts and some other poets demonstrate, there’s a great deal of depth and beauty to be discovered in examining the real inner life of a person with hair loss issues. As society continues, however slowly, to be more receptive to baldness, it will be interesting to see what these writers have to contribute.