The Poem

“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.

Forms and Devices

The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures, the collection in which “Player Piano” first appeared, is prefaced by a quote from Boethius’ De consolatione philosophiae (523; The Consolation of Philosophy, late ninth century), which celebrates the two-fold nature of poetic endeavor: the poem as lesson as well as entertainment. At times, it seems as if Updike repudiates Boethius’ sentiment, creating poems that are merely flights of fancy rather than imparting any great philosophy of life, but it would be a mistake to assume that the whole of Updike’s poetry is fanciful and superficial. Under Updike’s many puns and wordplay is a deep respect for the power of language.

“Player Piano,” in particular, seems to delight in verbal patterns; “click with a snicker,/.,steel feelers flicker,” for example, demonstrates both internal and end rhyme and the combination of dactyls and iambs in “At times I’m a jumble of rumbles” is an auditory delight that is echoed throughout the work’s three stanzas. The constancy and regularity of such rhyme and meter, difficult in any tongue, is particularly admirable in English, which has fewer rhyming words and less natural meter. Such facility of language seems to suggest the poet’s confidence in his wordplay, but it must not be assumed that the levity of the poem’s form is the whole of the poem’s substance.

As a rule, the form of light verse tends to buoy the...

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