Most readers of contemporary highbrow literature are familiar with John Updike as the author of fifteen novels and several collections of short stories. Some may have run across his nonfiction as well in such prestigious periodicals as The New Yorker and The Atlantic, or perused his essays in collections such as Hugging the Shore (1983) and Odd Jobs (1991). Genuine devotees know that Updike has been a prolific poet as well, taking time out from his duties as a chronicler of American domestic and intellectual life to produce what he calls in the introduction to Collected Poems, 1953- 1993 the “beloved waifs” of his life’s work as a writer. The aggregate of four decades spent playing with language, trying to give shape to stray observations of the world around him and the people who inhabit it, is brought together in a single handsomely constructed volume which shows throughout the author’s loving touch.
Since 1953, Updike has been sending out his poetry to magazine editors for inclusion in both popular and scholarly journals. His work has appeared in such diverse places as The American Scholar, Harper’s, The Nation, Ladies ’Home Journal, Poetry Review, Punch, Shenandoah, The Harvard Lampoon, and Scientific American. He has seen fit on five previous occasions to collect his poetic creations, in The Carpentered Hen and Other Poems (1954), Telephone Poles (1958), Midpoint and Other Poems (1963), Tossing and Turning (1968), and Facing Nature (1985). Over the years, he has published more than a dozen chapbooks or special editions of individual works, usually occasional and celebratory in nature. Collected Poems, 1953-1993 brings together more than 350 of Updike’s works; in the volume Updike includes not only almost all that had appeared in other places but also nearly six dozen previously unpublished poems.
The significance of the collection should not, therefore, be underestimated. As a minimum, it serves as an introduction for readers unfamiliar with Updike’s talents as a versifier to the multifarious nature of his poetic gifts. For those who have already encountered Updike’s poetry in the earlier volumes, reading this volume will be like renewing acquaintances with old friends. For lifelong fans, the collection will probably replace the yellowing copies of paperback editions of Telephone Poles, The Carpentered Hen and other Poems, and Midpoint and Other Poems, volumes whose spines have probably cracked from old age and frequent perusal. Collected Poems, 1953- 1993 is Updike’s alternative resume’, a reminder that he has had a choice of writing professions. While he has made his reputation (and his fortune) in prose, it has been a matter of authorial preference; for as this volume indicates, he could have achieved a measure of fame by his verse as well.
The collection of forty years’ work reveals much about Updike’s enduring interests:
domestic relationships, sexuality, theological issues, the everyday world around him, and the not-so-everyday world encountered in travels. Even the world of science is transformed into poetry. Some may find his frank discussion of sexual matters offensive; Updike would likely reply that humanity is made up of body as well as mind, and that the flesh is something to be loved and celebrated, not ignored or written of as if it were an object of shame. Indeed, nothing seems taboo for Updike, but it is in his identification of the sacred in the everyday that he is especially gifted. In his poetry as in his fiction, Updike looks to isolate those things from the everyday world that suggest for humankind the way to happiness and salvation.
If there are overriding distinguishing characteristics to be identified in Updike’s poetry, they are humor and style. The hundred-plus pages of light verse will make even the most cynical or sentimental reader smile often and occasionally laugh outright. Updike is a master of the sight rhyme and quick to take advantage of the oddities of the everyday world; it seems that almost anything can prompt him to dash off a few verses. As an example, his casual notice that someone named V. B. Wigglesworth had been named the Quick Professor of Biology at the University of Cambridge elicits an outrageous comparison to the hero of the nursery rhyme “Jack Be Nimble, Jack Be Quick”; the result is “V. B. Nimble, V. B. Quick,” a lighthearted look at a professor who scurries about performing scientific experiments and delivering...
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