The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

John Updike’s “Ex-Basketball Player,” a poem of five stanzas each containing six lines and written in blank verse, describes the life of Flick Webb, once a high-school basketball star but now, his glorious past several years behind him, a gas-station attendant whose life appears to have reached a dead end. The first stanza begins with brief geographical detail of Flick’s hometown, a town never named in the poem but presumably somewhere fairly small and rural (possibly like Updike’s own hometown of Shillington, Pennsylvania). The reader learns that Flick spends his days helping out “Berth,” who runs a garage located on the west-facing corner of Colonel McComsky Plaza.

The second stanza is a snapshot of Flick at Berth’s Garage, standing “tall among the idiot pumps.” The “bubble-head style” of gas pump, old-fashioned even at the time the poem was written in 1954, features a glass globe on top: In earlier decades of the twentieth century, gasoline was often sold at stations that might sell more than one brand, the brand identified by the globe. One of the pumps at Berth’s dispenses Esso brand gasoline, and the narrator of the poem sees it and the other pumps as athletes, the hoses “rubber elbows hanging loose and low” like a basketball player. Another squat pump, with no head, is “more of a football type.”

In stanzas 3 and 4, the narrator’s camera lens widens, and the reader begins to learn more about Flick’s...

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Ex-Basketball Player Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Although “Ex-Basketball Player” was written after the heyday of literary modernism, and Updike would have had the examples of radical poetic experimentation from which to draw, this poem, like many of Updike’s, is fairly traditional in form. Each stanza has the same number of lines, each line begins with a capital letter, and the grammar and syntax are standard. In short, “Ex-Basketball Player” looks the way many readers expect a poem to look.

Although Updike occasionally varies the rhythm of the lines, and a few contain eleven rather than ten syllables, most are written in iambic pentameter, the most common line of poetry written in English. Two syllables form an iamb when the first syllable is stressed and the second is unstressed, and a line is written in pentameter when it contains five feet, or syllabic units. Thus, “Their rubber elbows hanging loose and low” is a line of perfect iambic pentameter. “Ex-Basketball Player” is written in blank verse, or lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter. Since blank verse’s introduction in the mid-sixteenth century, poets have prized it because it closely approximates everyday speech: Updike’s choice of blank verse for this poem describing Flick, a former sports hero slowly going to seed, an all too familiar figure in small town America, seems appropriate.

To say that the poem is not especially experimental, however, is hardly to say that it is not skillfully constructed. The poem’s...

(The entire section is 594 words.)

Ex-Basketball Player Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bloom, Harold, ed. John Updike: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Boswell, Marshall. John Updike’s Rabbit Tetralogy: Mastered Irony in Motion. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000.

Greiner, Donald. John Updike’s Novels. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1984.

Luscher, Robert M. John Updike: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Miller, D. Quentin. John Updike and the Cold War: Drawing the Iron Curtain. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001.

Newman, Judie. John Updike. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.

Schiff, James A. John Updike Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1998.

Updike, John. Self-Consciousness: Memoirs. New York: Knopf, 1989.

Uphaus, Suzanne Henning. John Updike. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980.