Critics have often remarked that Updike, as a novelist, writes works that engage both the mind and the emotions. His most famous character, Rabbit Angstrom, has occasioned many a column of praise from the literary-minded. On the other hand, Updike the poet has garnered only a fraction of the notice applied to his prose writing. It is a specialist in poetry who recognizes such works as “Player Piano” as the equally fine handiwork of Updike. A lighthearted tone, present in both poetry and prose, is the primary key to identifying Updike’s hand, a trait that is anything but exclusive to Updike.
Perhaps the difficulty in seeing the novelist behind the poems is that it is hard to find good novelists who also write good poetry. The combination was far more common among the Victorians—William Makepeace Thackeray, Charles Dickens, and Emily Brontë had an equal fascination for both prose and light verse (Thackeray’s “Little Billee,” for example). Born well after the Victorian period, Updike nevertheless betrays many of the literary quirks of his Victorian forebears, particularly the tendency toward creating deep philosophical musings in the guise of a humorous ditty.
On the surface, “Player Piano” seems to be conventional in its adherence to the strictures of light verse; the work seems to be solely descriptive, neither despairing nor jubilant and establishing no logical nor rhetorical treatises. On the initial read, “Player...
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