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 bastard sidings and the hopeful small porches with their jigsaw brackets and gray milk-bottle boxes and the sooty ginkgo trees and the baking curbside cars wince beneath a brilliance like a frozen explosion.
The piling on of exquisitely observed detail (“and…and…and…and…and…”); the elegantly varied repetitions (“outdoor light”/“indoor light”; “dark”/“darkness”); the pathetic fallacy of the late verb “wince,” which echoes and focuses the men’s “blinking” as they emerge from the printing plant into the blinding afternoon sun—these are seductive, dazzling, inherently poetic effects.
Opposed to this gift for close observation, or mimetic evocation, was another, more deflated style he called “abstract-personal,” introspective rather than exuberant, which turns out to be the primary mode of Updike’s “serious” poetry. Where his best fiction is expansive, suggestive, impelled by metaphor, his poems are often pinched, withholding, scientifically dry. Updike in his poems often seems to be regarding things as if they were under a microscope. As in his prose, his subject is always his perceptions, but in his poems he doesn’t jab his fingers into the pie. Often, they read like jottings out of a notebook—things taken in but not yet really put to use.
Take the opening of “Mobile of Birds,” from 1958:
There is something
in their planetary weave that is comforting.
The polycentric orbits, elliptical
with mutual motion,
random as nature, and yet, above all,
those old Ptolemaic heavens small
enough for the Byzantine trinity,
seven levels of bliss, and numberless wheels
of omen, balanced occultly.
All that makes this verse and not prose is the fact that it’s cut into lines, some of which have been made to rhyme unimaginatively. It’s debatable whether Updike the novelist would have allowed these unconcise, unrhythmic lines into his prose.
Updike’s poetry writing falls into three phases. In his first decade or so as a writer, the poems can be clunkily rhetorical, monotone, lacking in the happy variety that animates his fiction. There are repetitive, plodding iambs with forced enjambments: the poems sacrifice rhythmic tautness to prosy description, as above. Occasionally he can get off a great line like “Animals seem so sad to be themselves—,” the incipit of “Topsfield Fair,” but this is followed by disappointing banalities (“the turkey a turkey even to his wattle,/the rabbit with his pink, distinctly, eyes”). In his poems Updike resorts archly to archaisms like “anent,” “yclept,” “saith,” “leathern,” “nether halls,” “a truth long known,” “Chinamen.” Luggage “stands in wait of its unpacking.” The poems are studded with expectable adjectives, outmoded inversions, bad or forced rhymes—or no rhymes when rhymes would help.
There are flashes of poetry, but they fight for air. Here is the last stanza of “Hoeing” (1963):
How neatly the green weeds
The blade chops the earth new.
Ignorant the wise boy who has never rendered thus the
The first line here is sharply, wittily observant. The second, though, is clotted, close to unsayable. In the third and fourth lines he tries awkwardly for sententiousness (note the forced off-rhythmic rhyme of “new” and “who,” which seems to exist only because it can, and that unfortunate “thus”). The final rhyme, though, is genius: entirely unexpected, insolent, unforgettable.
In Updike’s second, middle phase he discovers what Brad Leithauser in his introduction to Selected Poems refers to as “the form he found most congenial…the unrhymed, loosely iambic sonnet.” The poems become less jagged, more comfortable in their skin, though this period begins with the writer’s one foray into modernist experimentation, the book-long autobiographical poem Midpoint (1969). It includes photographs, potted scientific summaries, and headlines like “MIRRORS ARE VAGINAS,” “PENISES ARE EYES,” and this writer’s favorite, “dance, words!”
One of his themes here is gratitude for his good fortune, his sense of being preternaturally gifted, of how “I warmed/to my onliness.” Updike’s presumption that everything he has to say about himself is de facto interesting is refreshing in its candor. He presents himself here, as he says elsewhere, as “a literary Mr. Sunshine,” but it’s not a sympathetic persona, or an endlessly renewable poetic stance:
For conscientious climbing, God gave me these rewards:
fame with its bucket of unanswerable letters,
wealth with its worrisome market report…
and quatre enfants—none of them bed-wetters.
Midpoint concludes with several pages of bravura, occasionally regrettable, Popeian acrobatics—
Six million Jews will join the Congolese
King Leopold of Belgium cleared like trees
Foretastes of death, the aftertaste of sin,
In Winter, Whiskey, and in Summer, Gin.
All in all the poem comes off as a miasmatic indulgence. The self-congratulatory approach continues in “Apologies to Harvard,” his 1973 Phi Beta Kappa poem, in which he looks back, with a healthy degree of complicity, on the institution that “spit me out, by God, a gentleman,” though he does acknowledge about his peers that “We did not know we were a generation.”
The reader has to admire Updike’s self-knowledge and the pitiless dissection to which he subjects himself along with everyone and everything else. Not for nothing did he call his memoirs Self-consciousness (1989). He sees and reports on the worst in himself, and it doesn’t bother him all that much. “The artist who works in words and anecdotes, images and facts, wants to share with us nothing less than his digested life,” he wrote, and Begley in his biography goes to great and artful lengths to show how closely Updike’s fiction hews to his own experience. As he himself put it, “nothing in fiction rings quite as true as truth, slightly rearranged.” He was a razor-sharp spy on his surroundings, his friends and wives and lovers, “scrutinizing them with merciless sociological precision,” at times to their discomfort and/or outrage. The poem “Marching Through a Novel” reveals the essential coldness of the writerly gaze: “I do what I can for them,/but it is not enough…. Believe me, I love them/though I march them to finish them off.”
He does it to himself, too. In a story from the mid-1950s his alter ego is already “lustful, somewhat spoiled, a touch self-satisfied.” In the poems, though, the slight arrangement of fiction is eliminated. Updike’s characters, and especially himself, appear without protective screening. “I drank up women’s tears and spit them out/as 10-point Janson, Roman and ital,” he writes, one can’t quite say how ruefully, in one of his final poems.
In Updike’s last period, which more or less starts in the 1990s, and is the most interesting to me, he deals with decay and mortality and the “nullity” at the core of his view of life with the same steely mordancy that has served him as a fiction writer, but with a new awareness of loss. “Is there anything to write about but human sadness?” asks the man who not so very long before was consumed by the “rage/to excel, to exceed, to climb still higher.” In one of his later gems, “Perfection Wasted,” he muses on the impending dissolution of the artist’s intricately fashioned imitation of personhood:
And another regrettable thing about death
is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,
which took a whole life to develop and market—
the quips, the witticisms, the slant
adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest
the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched
in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,
their tears confused with their diamond earrings,
their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,
their response and your performance twinned.
The jokes over the phone. The memories packed
in the rapid-access file. The whole act.
Who will do it again? That’s it: no one;
imitators and descendants aren’t the same.
Often, the reader is granted intimate, almost self-disgusted access to the author’s solitude and self-absorption as he chronicles his own decay. In “One Tough Keratosis,” he describes the progress of a skin cancer on his hand. And in “To a Dead Flame,” he writes about “The aging smell…a rank small breeze wafts upward/when I shed my underwear.” “You never met my jealous present wife,” he tells his long-departed lover: “she hates this poem.”
Some of the poems versify digested information as before, though not always accurately. The French sculptor Clodion, for example, was not “dit Claude Michel,” but vice versa. And in “Munich” Updike asserts that “the bombs fell lightly here,” though the city endured more than seventy Allied raids. And then there is this:
Though most of them aren’t much to write about—
mere squibs and nubs, like half-smoked pale cigars,
the tint and stink recalling Tuesday’s meal,
the texture loose and soon dissolved—this one,
struck off in solitude one afternoon
(that prairie stretch before the late light fails)
with no distinct sensation, sweet or pained,
of special inspiration or release,
was yet a masterpiece: a flawless coil,
unbroken, in the bowl, as if a potter
who worked in this most frail, least grateful clay
had set himself to shape a topaz vase.
O spiral perfection, not seashell nor
stardust, how can I keep you? With this poem.
In his later years Updike is still making cow patties for his long-dead mother and remains well pleased with their shapeliness.
Christopher Carduff’s selection closes with “Endpoint,” a series of unrhymed sonnets that recall Robert Lowell’s work of the late 1960s and 1970s, and look back with a jaundiced eye on the triumphalism of Midpoint, written nearly forty years earlier. Updike’s last, best book of poems records his sudden contraction of lung cancer in his seventy-seventh year with a chilling and dispassionate honesty, and with flashes of true lyricism: “I was male, and made/to make a mark, while Mother typed birdsong,” he writes of his often-conflicted relationship with his writer mother, Linda Grace Hoyer. “Perhaps/we meet our heaven at the start and not/the end of life.” “I was lighter then, and lived as if/within forever.” “My unseemly haste/of greedy living,” he calls it. The last poem was written barely a month before his death in January 2009.
It’s interesting to consider the figures who dominated American poetry in Updike’s youth. William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, and Robert Frost were still alive, if not in their prime—not to mention the immortal Ogden Nash. Wallace Stevens had only recently died. The confessional poets, the New York School, the poets of the West Coast—Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Kenneth Rexroth—were all at work or about to emerge, to mention only a few of the most significant. Updike occasionally sounds a bit like Frost and parodies Eliot—“this is Connecticut, and April,” he writes in “Three Poems from Airplanes,” mocking the famous formulation in “Little Gidding” that “history is now and England.” He seems uneasy with the bardic stance or with finding another language in which to express his poetic ideas, arguably because his ideas are not poetic. He sees, he denotes, but he does not transform. His observations nearly always remain the beginning and the end of his writing in verse.
Updike’s favorite peer in the craft was L.E. Sissman, a Boston advertising man who wrote unfashionable yet incisive narrative verse about upper-middle-class lives that, as Updike himself wrote, “though possessing the declarative virtues of prose…is always poetic.” In fact, Sissman’s work, with its assured, melodic rhyming, was far superior in naturalness and control to Updike’s—lyrical, as Updike recognized, in ways he was not. Another gifted local poetic apostate, X.J. Kennedy, reviewing the Collected Poems, compared Updike’s best work to Larkin’s, though it’s hard to find any true affinities beyond a certain dyspepsia between the great English balladeer of postwar disaffection and the largely complacent character of the American Middle. Tom Disch in Poetry called Updike “one of the best poets writing in America,” but these were distinctly minority opinions. Basically, Updike’s secret bliss—like most poets’ work, for that matter—stayed secret.
One comes away feeling that less is finally more when it comes to verse like Updike’s. On balance, a Selected Poems as generous as this one feels like too much of not all that good a thing. Updike is always an aesthete, and his organizing eye can get him in trouble, as it did in his curiously detached reaction in The New Yorker to the catastrophe of September 11, which he observed firsthand: “We keep fighting not to reduce it to our own smallness,” he wrote. What’s missing from the poems is, essentially, lift. They stay earthbound on the page, locked in their abstract-personal selves. They don’t rise to meet us, and after a while we get tired of trying to meet them.