John Updike Poetry: American Poets Analysis
An appropriate starting point for an analysis of John Updike’s poetry is Charles T. Samuels’s summary remark in his brief study of the writer: “In verse,” Samuels notes, Updike “frequently exploits the familiar,” often simply “as an occasion to display his talent for comic rhyme.” What strikes the reader immediately about Updike’s poems is his heavy reliance on everyday experience, whether autobiographical or generic, and the way he manipulates language to achieve distinctive, often unusual and amusing, rhyming and rhythmical patterns. Reviewers of individual volumes of Updike’s work have not always been convinced, however, that this kind of rhetorical gamesmanship has offered sufficient compensation for a body of works that are, in fact, intellectually lightweight when compared with the serious fiction that Updike has produced during the past two decades. As a result, the serious student of Updike’s poetry is faced with examining the work in a critical vacuum or in the constant context of his fiction.
One can see, though, that Updike’s poetry demonstrates his ability to work deftly within a variety of forms, turning them to his own purposes. His published poems include sonnets, free verse modeled on that of Walt Whitman and contemporary figures, Spenserian stanzas, elegiac quatrains, extended commentary in heroic couplets, and works that follow (at times almost slavishly) other poetic conventions. More often than not, the forms are used in parody, as are the manifold rhyme schemes that remind one of the cantos of Lord Byron’s Don Juan (1819-1824) in their variety and in their reliance on sight rhyme or colloquial pronunciation for effect. For example, in “Agatha Christie and Beatrix Potter,” Updike closes his short, humorous comparison of these authors (whose works he sees as essentially similar) with a couplet of praise for having given readers “cozy scares and chases/ That end with innocence acquitted—/ Except for Cotton-tail, who did it.” Similarly, in a light limerick poking fun at young Swedish scholars, he opens with the couplet: “There was a young student of Lund/ Whose -erstanding was not always und.”
Updike’s art, especially his poetry, is thus intentionally enigmatic, because it contains a discoverable but not self-evident truth. The surface finish, whether comic, ironic, or sexually explicit, is often simply the bait to lure readers into the world of the poem. Once there, Updike asks his readers to look closely at their own lives, often challenging them to be as introspective about themselves as he is about his own experiences. In that way, he hopes to help others make sense of a world that he believes is essentially good and in which good people can prosper.
Like many contemporary poets, Updike also relies on the appearance of the poem on the page for effect. In poems such as “Typical Optical” (from Facing Nature), he prints various lines in different type styles and sizes to make his point: As one gets older, one’s vision (literally) changes, and what one could see at close range as a child becomes blurred to more mature eyes. As a result, when Updike says that the novels of Marcel Proust and the poetry of John Donne “Recede from my ken in/ Their eight-point Granjon,” he emphasizes the problem by printing the phrase “eight-point Granjon” in the type face and size to which it refers. Then, in his closing remark that his “old eyeballs” can now “enfold/ No print any finer/ Than sans-serif bold,” he prints the final phrase in sans-serif type and has the final word in bold print. Similarly, the lines of the poem “Pendulum” (from The Carpentered Hen, and Other Tame Creatures) are printed beneath the title at angles resembling the swinging of a pendulum on a clock, and individual words in the poem “Letter Slot” (from the same volume) are arranged on the page to suggest letters falling through a mail slot onto the floor.
The reader often laughs at Updike’s tricks,...
(The entire section is 3,383 words.)