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...
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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, but the poetry cannot be judged first-rate simply for the author’s ability to manipulate both the language and the conventions of the tradition in which he works. As a consequence, Updike is too often dismissed as a dilettante in this field. A close examination of his published volumes, however, reveals that the author himself is careful to distinguish between “poetry” and “light verse.” Much of what Updike calls “light verse” is simply poetic exercise, intended to highlight the wonderful ability of language to evoke amusement and thought in both reader and writer. Often the impetus for such poetry comes from the world around Updike: newspaper accounts, books that are popular best sellers, visits he has made to various places where the benign incongruities of life manifest themselves to him. Poems such as “V. B. Nimble, V. B. Quick” (from The Carpentered Hen, and Other Tame Creatures) may not offer substantial food for thought: The genesis of the poem—an entry in the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio Times that “V. B. Wigglesworth, F.R.S., Quick Professor of Biology” will speak on an upcoming program—triggers in Updike’s mind a humorous comparison with the hero of the nursery rhyme “Jack Be Nimble, Jack Be Quick,” and the resultant verse about a frenetic scientist dashing off experiments and hurrying off to talk about them provides momentary pleasure to readers without trying to make a serious observation about the world of science. This poem, and many others like it in the Updike canon, are simply offered as tidbits to evoke humor and sympathy in an otherwise somber world.
Because Updike is so facile at handling the many demands facing the poet, it is easy to overlook the serious nature of much of his output. A substantial number of his poems are attempts to examine the significance of his own life’s experiences and to explore questions of importance to contemporary society. As in his fiction, Updike is especially concerned with the place of religion in the modern world, and often, beneath the surface playfulness, one can see the poet grappling with complex moral and philosophical issues. He is also a careful student of the literary tradition he has inherited, and his attempts to examine the place of literature as an interpreter of experience often find their way into his poems.
The way in which Updike combines the comic and the serious is illustrated quite well in his poem “Love Sonnet” (from Midpoint, and Other Poems). Its title suggests its subject, but the content is at first glance enigmatic. The opening line, “In Love’s rubber armor I come to you,” is followed by a string of letters printed down the page, as if they were the endings of lines which have been omitted: “b/ oo/ b./ c,/ d/ c/ d:/ e/ f—/ e/ f./ g/ g.” The form of the sonnet has thus been preserved (the “oo” sound of the third line rhyming with the “you” at the end of the first line), but the content is absent. Adding simultaneously to the confusion and to the humor is the overt sexual implication of the only full line: One cannot mistake the literal meaning of the proposition. Nevertheless, a closer look at the poem, especially in the light of the literary tradition that it seems to parody, suggests that there may in fact be serious purpose here. Traditionally, sonnets have been poems about love. Although their content has varied, the form itself has usually suggested to readers the kind of interpretation the poet expects. One looks for the words in a sonnet to be metaphors describing the way in which a speaker feels about his beloved. In this poem, however, the process is reversed. The overt reference to physical lovemaking is the metaphor: “Love’s rubber armor” is the sonnet form itself, an elastic medium in which the lover, working within conventions—and protected by them—is able to “come to” his beloved and display both his wit and his devotion. In this way, then, Updike is making a comment on the literary tradition: The sonnet form has both strengths and weaknesses; its conventions provide a way to ensure that meaning is conveyed but limit the extent to which the writer may put the form to use without risking misinterpretation. Appearing at first to be a risqué comic piece about a subject much talked of and trivialized in Updike’s own society, “Love Sonnet” emerges as a serious statement about the nature of poetry itself.
The special strengths and weaknesses of Updike as a poet can be seen in those poems that he presented to the world as “poems” rather than verses. In these, he is often franker in discussions of sex, and the explicit language may offend some readers. No subject seems sacred, yet it is precisely the concern Updike had for sacred things in human life that led him to write graphically about human relationships. From his study of everyday occurrences, Updike tried to isolate that which is important for humans, to show how people construct meaning from the disparate events of their own lives.
The most extended example of Updike’s use of individual events to make statements about universals occurs in his long autobiographical poem “Midpoint.” Published as the centerpiece of the 1969 collection Midpoint, and Other Poems, “Midpoint” is a collage of text, drawings, and photographs that traces the poet’s life from infancy to its midpoint, as Updike reaches age thirty-six. Though the poem has been dismissed by some critics as “quirky,” Updike himself insists that in it he demonstrates what is for him an artistic credo, a search for “the reality behind the immediately apparent.” In “Midpoint,” Updike reveals himself to be a believer in “pointillism” as both technique and philosophy: “Praise Pointillism, Calculus and all/ That turn the world infinitesimal.” Like Whitman in Leaves of Grass (1855), Updike takes his own life as an example of the human condition, finding in it something of value to share with others.
“Midpoint” consists of five cantos, four of which are modeled closely on writers of the past. Each is preceded by a short “argument” reminiscent of that provided by John Milton in Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), in which Updike provides the reader with clues to the action of the canto. In the first, in stanzas reminiscent of those in Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), Updike reviews his childhood and his growing awareness of himself as a discrete entity in the universe. An only child, he comes to see himself as the center of that universe, a point around which the world revolves. Though to sing of himself (an allusion to Whitman) is “all wrong,” he has no choice since he has no other subject so appropriate or about which he knows so much. The second canto consists exclusively of photographs: Updike as baby and young child, his parents, himself as a teenager, himself and his wife, their first child. These are printed with varying degrees of sharpness: Some appear crisply defined, some are little more than a blur of dots on the page. This intentional shifting of focus carries out graphically the theme Updike expresses in the “argument” that he prints at the beginning of the canto: “Distance improves vision.” In a sense, the action in this canto repeats that of the first, but from another perspective: The reader sees what he has just read about.
The third canto, composed in Spenserian stanzas, is titled “The Dance of the Solids.” Based on Updike’s readings in Scientific American, it presents in verse a view of the way the universe is constructed. The bonding of atomic particles into larger and larger structures eventually “yield[s],/ In Units growing visible, the World we wield!” It would be easy to lose sight of the poet’s purpose in these most ingenious iambic pentameter lines. Updike uses the language of science, and even mathematical formulas, with exceptional precision to present his argument. For example, in explaining what happens when a solid is heated, he writes: “T = 3Nk is much too neat.” The stanzas are not simply virtuoso performances; in them, Updike provides an analogy for examining the human condition. Just as the visible world is composed of subatomic particles combined in meaningful ways, so are people’s lives simply the ordered and meaningful arrangements of individual incidents. To understand the meaning, one must first isolate and describe the incident.
The fourth canto, “The Play of Memory,” contains text, line drawings, and close-ups from the photographs that appear in canto 2. The text is modeled on Whitman’s poetic technique of free verse. In this section of the poem, Updike explores his marriage and the role sex plays in shaping human lives. The final canto, written in couplets that suggest the method of Alexander Pope in An Essay on Man (1733-1734), is a review of the modern scene in which Updike the poet finds himself. In it, he offers advice, alternately serious and satiric, for living. In the fashion of Arthur Hugh Clough in “The Last Decalogue,” a parody of the Ten Commandments, Updike admonishes his readers: “Don’t kill; or if you must, while killing grieve”; “Doubt not; that is, until you can’t believe”; “Don’t covet Mrs. X; or if you do,/ Make sure, before you leap, she covets you.” As in the third canto, readers may become so enraptured with the wise witticisms and the deft handling of poetic form that they lose the sense of the canto’s place within the poem. In fact, the poem has prompted more than one reader to wonder, as did the reviewer for Library Journal in 1970, what Updike was “up to” in “Midpoint.”
If, however, one accepts what Updike himself has said about “Midpoint,” that in it he attempts to explain his own attitudes about his life and art, one can see the poem as a kind of poetic credo, a systematic statement about the poet’s acceptance of his role as poet. The many references to other artists and the conscious use of recognizable forms associated with specific poets and poems suggest that Updike is using his own life to make a statement about the way art is created. In fact, in the closing lines of the fifth canto, he observes, “The time is gone, when Pope could ladle Wit/ In couplet droplets, and decanter it.” No longer can “Wordsworth’s sweet brooding” or “Tennyson’s unease” be effective as vehicles for explaining the human condition. The world is now a sad and perhaps an absurd place, and art has followed suit by offering those who come to it only “blank explosions and a hostile smile.” Updike, who has accepted the notion of the absurd from modern theologians who have pointed out that faith cannot be rational even if it is essential, offers this poem as an ironic, sometimes comic, and sometimes highly personal and hence prejudicial view of the world. For Updike, autobiography has become metaphor, because only by viewing the world through others’ eyes can individuals hope to understand something of the significance of their own predicament. Similarly, as he has used the events of his own life to make a statement about life itself, Updike uses the forms of his predecessors to make a statement about the efficacy of art in the modern world.
Americana, and Other Poems
In Americana, and Other Poems, Updike continues to use his own life experiences to draw readers’ interest and then to lead to important realizations about human life in general, and with the same dazzlingly skillful and ironically humorous techniques. The title poem interweaves creative descriptions of people and places in urban and suburban America with philosophic commentary derived therefrom, to the effect that “the American way” leaves beauty to survive on its own, without the guidance of kings or cultural leaders. Updike humorously illustrates this point by admitting to losing the unfinished poem in travel and finding and completing it later, at another location, and then only to lose it again by virtue of transfer to the readers, who will of course fail to completely comprehend or appreciate it. Such mixture of creative technique, lightly humorous tone, and philosophic insight make this title poem among the best in this collection.
Updike’s humorously satiric insight is also obvious in “Phoenix,” in which he describes this converted desert area as an artificial universe of fast-food restaurants and high-rise buildings, a world of make-believe created by wealth, with golf courses, fake gardens, and jogging paths that, ironically, trap rather than liberate the swarm of retired persons struggling to defeat death. The shift from artificial human creations to minimalized humans as a metaphoric swarm of insects effectively undercuts the egotism of the wealthy gathered in Phoenix. Updike makes the same point just as creatively in “Slum Lords,” in which he criticizes the super-rich as bad neighbors because they are almost never home, given they have so many homes they feel compelled to visit, or because they constantly tear down homes and rebuild bigger ones, then leave again. Thus, the neighborhoods of the super-rich are ghost towns like Tombstone after the silver rush, so Updike avows excluding them because, oxymoronically, their wealth is a form of poverty.
There are also several instances in Americana, and Other Poems of Updike’s creative use of the sonnet form, probably most effectively in “To a Skylark.” Obviously a deliberate use of the title of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous Romantic poem, Updike reverses the normal expectation of ironic use of the title and instead writes absolutely consistently with Shelley’s longer poem. He presents the skylark as lifting him out of his earthbound struggles—in the specific circumstance, his problems with golf—and through empathy making him one with the bird’s “sheer blithe being.” Such conscious, skillful use of Shelley’s poem in a different form, sonnet rather than ode, is a testament both to Updike’s admiration of Shelley and to Updike’s own poetic skill.
Probably most consistent with the entire volume, though, in its preoccupation with aging and death, obvious concerns of Updike late in life, when these poems were written, is the long poem “Song of Myself,” a title borrowed from Whitman. Updike does write somewhat ironically in this poem. Rather than the optimistic inclusiveness of Whitman’s poem, this poem is focused on Updike’s decline in health and is a bemoaning of death rather than a celebration of life. Updike considers his slowness to heal, his sun-damaged skin, his difficulty praying and sleeping, his painful dental implants, the scars from a dog’s bite in childhood, and other maladies as he declines toward death, and yet, ultimately, he finds affirmation in the very power of the methodical forces that destroy him. He realizes that this same “shame of time” also controls everything else, leading him to the realization that he and his skin have shared experiences with a larger force, which “rides and sees,” meaning a deity of some type in which he can, finally, believe and to whom he is reconciled. Thus, even this seeming reversal of Whitman’s optimism is only a semireversal, in its creative presentation of a life in decline that is still somehow affirmed.
Endpoint, and Other Poems
Endpoint, and Other Poems collects poems written in the last seven years of Updike’s life and brought together weeks before his death. It is more serious than many of his collections, as its main theme is the poet’s aging and death. The title poem, “Endpoint,” is a series of poems, a number of which were written on his birthdays. In these poems, he remembers incidents from his childhood, his career as writer, and his personal life, and reflects on his aged body and his terminal illness. In “Birthday Shopping, 2007,” he is startled by his reflection in the mirror of a movie theater, wondering “Where was the freckled boy who used to peek/ into the front-hall mirror, off to school?” In “Hospital 11/23-27/08,” he writes of dying: “God save us from ever ending, though billions have./ The world is blanket by foregone deaths,/ small beads of ego, bright with appetite,/ whose pin-sized price of light winked out.” The other sections in this volume contain light verse and sonnets.