“Player Piano,” a quirky example of light verse from the early works of John Updike, demonstrates the well-known novelist’s penchant for showcasing the musical nature of language. The three-stanza poem, primarily in dactylic tetrameter (a form reminiscent of that of the limerick), describes a melody played by the mechanical “fingers” of a player piano:
My stick fingers click with a snicker As, chuckling, they knuckle the keys;Light-footed, my steel feelers flicker And pluck from these keys melodies.
The “speaker” of the poem, the player piano itself, relates to the reader the processes it experiences while it is playing the tunes recorded on its paper rolls. The poem, while seemingly lighthearted and amusing on the surface, gives the reader a rather disconcerting look into the mind of a machine. Even though the player piano is performing an essentially human task—the playing of music is usually regarded as a creative art, not a mechanical science—-the machine contemplates its tasks much differently than would a human musician.
The player piano’s execution is nimble and light, but any human listener would not be able to forget that the player piano, a machine, lacks any sense of what it is playing; “My paper can caper; abandon/ Is broadcast by dint of my din.” Although it is technically proficient when it plays the tunes on its paper rolls, the player piano is also, regrettably, inhuman in its playing: “no man or band has a hand in/ The tones I turn on from within.” The rollicking tunes, while pleasant and musical to the listener’s ear—“At times I’m a jumble of rumbles,/ At others I’m light like the moon”—betray the demanding regularity inherent in the working of any machine: “never my numb plunker fumbles,/ Misstrums me, or tries a new tune.”
The rhythm is insistent and ruthlessly regular, the expression of every note is precise, and the melody perfectly duplicated each time it is rendered because the player piano can never alter any aspect of its playing. The absolute regularity of the player piano’s tune, like the meter of the poem describing it, is reflective of the expression of a purely mechanical musician and imparts a sentience quite unlike that of the rather slipshod, but essentially creative and expressive, playing of a human musician.