Updike uses a form of figurative language called symbolism to create meaning in “Ex-Basketball Player.” Symbolism is effective because it works on a deeper level...
John Updike's poem “Ex-Basketball Player” is about a guy named Flick Webb who was, at one time, a high school basketball star.
Updike uses a form of figurative language called symbolism to create meaning in “Ex-Basketball Player.” Symbolism is effective because it works on a deeper level than simple, explicit language. There's something about the workings of the human brain that appreciates and responds to a well-made symbol.
1. Updike doesn't take long to start with the symbols. The poem's first three lines are
Pearl Avenue runs past the high-school lot,
Bends with the trolley tracks, and stops, cut off
Before it has a chance to go two blocks,
In these lines, “Pearl Avenue” symbolizes Flick's life. Pearl Avenue runs past the high school where Flick was a star, but, like Flick, it doesn't get far. It only has a chance to go two blocks further before it is “cut off.” Flick's own life was cut off after high school, and he ended up working in a gas station and living in the past. One interesting thing about this symbol is that it starts the poem, so there is no way the reader can realize its meaning is symbolic when they initially read it. You have to read the poem a second time (at the very least; it took me many more readings than two) to understand why Updike started the poem this way.
2. The second stanza starts with
Flick stands tall among the idiot pumps—
The pumps symbolize basketball players; they are five on a side, like a basketball team, and their elbows hang loose and low.
3. In the final three lines, Updike symbolizes how Flick still lives off of his past glory, even while playing pinball.
Flick seldom says a word to Mae, just nods
Beyond her face toward bright applauding tiers
Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads.
The Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads symbolize the fans that used to cheer for Flick when he played high school basketball.
Students sometimes question the value of symbols in poetry. They may seem pointless, but when you are really into a poem and responding to the poet's message, symbols can take the message to another level by giving the reader something concrete to mentally and emotionally hold.