Updike’s Violin

Selected Poems

by John Updike, edited by Christopher Carduff, with an introduction by Brad Leithauser
Knopf, 287 pp., $30.00
John Updike, Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, 1985
Dominique Nabokov
John Updike, Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, 1985

John Updike’s first published book was a collection of poems. The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures, primarily a collection of light verse, was published by Cass Canfield at Harper and Brothers in 1958, when the author was twenty-six. (Harper rejected a novel manuscript, Home, at more or less the same time.) In college Updike had “effortlessly” written light verse for The Harvard Lampoon, according to his classmate Michael Arlen, and had begun publishing poems, “mostly delicious froth, ingenious, well-crafted silliness,” his biographer Adam Begley calls them,* in The New Yorker, the magazine that had been for Updike “the object of my fantasies and aspirations since I was thirteen.” Soon he was invited to be a staff writer at the magazine, which was then coming into its own as the nation’s premier weekly, but he abruptly left New York in 1957 for the comparative tranquillity of the North Shore of Massachusetts, where he was to live for the rest of his life, producing scores of books—novels, stories, criticism—among them eight volumes of poems.

From the start, Updike was a writer of prodigious fluidity and application who almost immediately found “frictionless success” where he most desired it, and his ambition had a popular tinge in keeping with his targeted venue. You could almost call his early verse “applied poetry,” entertainments written with his left hand, as it were. As time went by, though, he distinguished his light verse from what he later called his “secret bliss.” “My poems are my oeuvre’s beloved waifs,” he wrote in the preface to his 1993 Collected Poems. Lurking in the shadows of Updike’s will to shine is another, more surreptitious aspiration, one he never fully came to terms with.

“Description expresses love,” he once wrote, and “the telling use of minute, convincing detail” is the substrate of his fictional art. Updike’s prose, especially early on, is often hypnotically propulsive. It drives the reader forward with a vigor enriched by sonic patterns, layered, elaborately balanced metaphoric structures, and a ceaseless flowing-ebbing-flowing rhythmic force. William Maxwell, Updike’s adoring New Yorker editor, felt that his 1958 story “The Alligators” “read like one long poem,” and the brooding rush of his fiction, most notably in the great early books Rabbit, Run (1960) and The Centaur (1963), is his most intensely lyrical writing.

As a close-to-random example, here’s the opening of Rabbit Redux (1971):

Men emerge pale from the little printing plant at four sharp, ghosts for an instant, blinking, until the outdoor light overcomes the look of constant indoor light clinging to them. In winter, Pine Street at this hour is dark, darkness presses down early from the mountain that hangs above the stagnant city of Brewer; but now in summer the granite curbs starred with mica and the row houses differentiated by speckled…

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