When John Updike died in January, 2009, at the age of seventy-six, the literary world was filled with retrospectives of his life as a prose writer. He had written more than twenty novels, as well as many short stories, essays (including literary criticism), two plays, and even a few books for children. Updike’s prose seems likely to become a lasting part of the American fiction canon. It is not surprising, therefore, that his poetry has often been overlooked, although he published at least one volume of poems in each decade of his writing life (eight volumes in all, including Endpoint), and his poems appeared in a variety of periodicals ranging from The New Yorker to American Poetry Review. Thus, he produced a very respectable body of poetic work by any standard.
The first third of Endpoint collects the volume’s titular grouping of poems. Updike began the grouping as a series of birthday poems, producing one each year beginning in 2002, when he turned seventy. He added to the series several poems written during his final illness. Always interested in form, Updike used unrhymed sonnets for these poems, often joining three or more sonnets to make a birthday poem, sometimes concluding with a half rhyme to bring the poem to an end. Although all their subjects begin with the birthday in question and consider, at least in part, the general subject of aging, the poems also include many references to Updike’s youth, moving back and forth between past and present.
The first poem in the collection, “March Birthday 2002, and After,” can serve as an example. It begins with a snowy March day at Updike’s home in Massachusetts; the poet is suffering painful twinges brought on by his increasing age, as well as by the number of celebrations his seventieth birthday has occasioned. He points out that advanced age means merely that one has avoided dying, but his mind takes him back to his childhood, when he spent sick days in bed, accompanied by books and the radio, and when he enjoyed being waited on by his parents and the visiting doctor. The second sonnet in the poem blends images of the snowstorm and of Updike’s own physical state. The snow resists the encroaching sun and seems to say “Give me another hour; then I’ll go.” The third sonnet of this poem moves the poet to a plane, crossing countryside he has long known well to fly into Manhattan. For a moment, he thinks the plane’s approach is too low: “Age I must, but die I would rather not.” The last sonnet of this group offers the sort of attentive description that marks much of Updike’s writing. After a sleet storm, crocuses “spread their stained-glass cups” and “daffodils grow leggy like young girls.” Nature is constantly in flux, he notes, for flowers as well as for human beings, for whom all days are both birth days and death days.
All of the birthday poems share this elegiac tone, Updike’s consciousness of the past and of his diminishing future (the first poem notes that, at seventy, Updike has entered the decade in which he is likely to die). In “03/18/03,” he notes the war in Iraq, the fifth war he’s lived through, and then thinks of his parents walking ahead of him on a path that is simultaneously the real path he climbs on his birthday and the metaphoric path of the future. They “seemed to sail ahead of me/ like ships receding to destinations where/ I’d be forgotten.”
The 2004 birthday poem was written in Tucson, and Updike marks his seventy-second birthday with a satiric picture of the city’s aged retirees, who have come there “to bake away/ their juicy lifetime jobs.” The 2005 poem focuses on Updike’s life as an author, his written words a fragile legacy in an electronic world where printing (“a half-millennium’s brief wonder”) seems almost obsolete. The poem moves through Updike’s own history with print, from his childhood devotion to newspaper comic strips to the heady delight of seeing his first work in print, to his pleasure in working at The New Yorker and his admiration for its editors. The last stanzas note that Updike has reached the age at which his father died. The second part of the 2005 poem, “My Mother at Her Desk,” considers the writer’s own career by memorializing his mother’s unsuccessful efforts to publish her fiction. He...
(The entire section is 1775 words.)