The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 518

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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 story. The narrator reveals the fact that Flick was a fine high-school basketball player, having scored 390 points in 1946, still a county record. The narrator also, in the third stanza, refers to himself directly for the first time in the poem, noting that he had once seen Flick score “thirty-eight or forty” points during a home game, a detail implying that Flick and the narrator attended the same high school. However, as the reader learns in the fourth stanza, Flick’s successes were all in the past. Having never learned a trade, he just works at Berth’s now, selling gasoline, checking oil, and changing flat tires. Once in a while “he dribbles an inner tube” for the amusement of friends, most of whom would not need the reminder of Flick’s past.

If Flick has seemed until this point in the poem a slightly comic figure, cheerfully dribbling his inner tubes, he begins to appear more pathetic, perhaps even sinister, in the fifth stanza. The picture of him here, “Grease-gray and kind of coiled,” playing pinball, smoking cigars, and drinking lemon phosphates (a kind of soft drink) at Mae’s Luncheonette, where he hangs out when he is off work, is disturbing, as is the fact that he seldom speaks to Mae, but rather nods “Beyond her face toward bright applauding tiers/ Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads.” The audience that loved him in high school when he was scoring points for the basketball team has moved forward. Yet still wanting the applause, Flick turns toward junk food and candy for sale at the small-town diner for the emotional sustenance he still craves.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594

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 images and the interesting ways that Updike presents them merit consideration. The poet chooses to open the poem not, as one might expect, with a picture of Flick, but with a picture of the streets leading to Berth’s garage:

Pearl Avenue runs past the high-school lot,Bends with the trolley tracks, and stops, cut offBefore it has a chance to go two blocks,At Colonel McComsky Plaza. Berth’s GarageIs on the corner facing west.

Updike leaves it to the reader to draw the comparison: Flick, like Pearl Avenue, is cut off “Before it has a chance.” One might wonder who Colonel McComsky was. Some war hero, now forgotten? Such obscurity sounds like Flick’s own destiny, probably not many years in the future. Another implied metaphor is that comparing Flick and the “old bubble-head style” gasoline pumps. Flick, a stereotypical student-athlete hero whose identity was so entangled with basketball that he surely never bothered to study much in school or learn a trade, seems quite at home where the narrator consigns him, “among the idiot pumps.”

Updike’s use of sound devices is also interesting. There is no real rhyme scheme in this poem, but the lines have a way of almost rhyming, of subtly echoing, that is worthy of mention. Most of the stanzas use half or slant rhyme to some degree. Consider for instance the end words of each line in the second stanza: “pumps,” “style,” “low,” “eyes,” “without,” “type.” None of these words rhymes, but the second, fourth, and sixth words do echo one another through the use of assonance, or repeated vowel sounds: the long i sound, in each case employing a y. It is not a rhyme scheme, but it does provide a kind of balance. Several of the stanzas have this quality of almost, but not quite, containing a rhyme scheme. Perhaps Updike is using this “almost, but not quite” quality to suggest something about Flick, a former high-school basketball star, now a marginally employed young man—not even really a mechanic—who might have made it, should have made it, but will not, quite, ever make it.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 105

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.

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