Like John Updike, I grew up in Pennsylvania (in my case Lancaster County instead of Berks) and then came to New England for college; and until 2009 we lived here in Essex County together in view of Great Misery Island and Bowditch’s Ledge.
Of course, there the similarities between us end.
Or do they? No winner of Pulitzers or other laurels, I nevertheless find in John Updike’s poetry moments that I recognize as certifiably me. Here’s an instance:
Thoughts While Driving Home
Was I clever enough? Was I charming?
Did I make ay least one good pun?
Was I disconcerting? Disarming?
Was I wise? Was I wan? Was I fun?
Did I answer that girl with white shoulders
Correctly, or should I have said
(Engagingly), “Kierkegaard smolders,
But Eliot’s ashes are dead?”
And did I, while being a smarty,
Yet some wry reserve slyly keep,
So they murmured, when I’d left the party,
“He’s deep. He’s deep. He’s deep”?
This piece of light verse from the ‘50s is obviously me, just better turned out, more winningly and memorably voiced. (You’ll know already that John Updike considered the publication in The New Yorker of such light verse, first in 1954, as launching his professional writing life.)
Thirty years later, reading these poems on the beaches of Manchester and Beverly Farms, I repeatedly, reliably felt a “triumphant sense of capture”—which is how he described the shudder he felt after writing a good poem. A splendid man!, I thought, to feel these things, as he himself wrote about James Joyce, in “Wife-Wooing”: “A splendid man, to feel that. Splendid also to feel the curious and potent, inexplicable and irrefutably magical life language leads within itself.”
Here is another light poem, gamely led by language’s life.
I Missed His Book but Read His Name
“The Silver Pilgrimage,” by M. Anantanarayanan . . .
160 pages. Criterion. $3.95.
– The New York Times
Though authors are a dreadful clan,
To be avoided if you can,
I’d like to meet the Indian,
I picture him as short and tan,
We’d meet, perhaps, in Hindustan,
I’d say, with admirable élan,
I’ve heard of you. The Times once ran
A notice on your novel, an
Unusual tale of God and Man.”
Would seat me on a lush divan
And read his name—that sumptuous span
Of “a”s and “n”s more lovely than
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan”—
Aloud to me all day. I plan
Henceforth to be an ardent fan
-Also found in Telephone Poles and Other Poems. He later learned he’d been mispronouncing the name and therefore stopped reading the poem aloud.
In the first poem, it’s the word “smarty” (“and did I, while being a smarty”) that’s spot-on, while not merely rhyming with “party.”
In the second, I enjoy (and I think he did) the flat, deliberate inexactness of the word “tan” (“I think of him as short and tan.”)
As a college student tossing and turning through the pages of Midpoint and Facing Nature and Telephone Poles, it was hard not to want to be John Updike. Still, “I had the timid sense to see that you do not will to be John Updike; you fall into it at birth, ripe from the beginning” (to appropriate The Centaur).
I’ll finish now with a poem set in a place many of you know well, Cape Ann Golf Course. I expect John Updike and I played Cape Ann at the same time on occasion, though I never bumped into him. There I never fail to say “the ball wobbles up and with a glottal rattle bobbles in”—or, on that peerless fourth hole, to recite the paragraph that contains the equally peerless “A divot the size of an undershirt was taken…”
Here’s the poem: “The Great Scarf of Birds,” written in 1962.
The Great Scarf of Birds
Playing golf on Cape Ann in October,
I saw something to remember.
Ripe apples were caught like red fish in the nets
of their branches. The maples
were colored like apples,
part orange and red, part green.
The elms, already transparent trees,
seemed swaying vases full of sky. The sky
was dramatic with great straggling V’s
of geese streaming south, mare’s-tails above them.
Their trumpeting made us look up and around.
The course sloped into salt marshes,
and this seemed to cause the abundance of birds.
As if out of the Bible
or science fiction,
a cloud appeared, a cloud of dots
like iron fillings which a magnet
underneath the paper undulates.
It dartingly darkened in spots,
paled, pulsed, compressed, distended, yet
held an identity firm: a flock
of starlings, as much one thing as a rock.
One will moved above the tress
the liquid and hesitant drift.
Come nearer, it became less marvellous,
more legible, and merely huge.
“I never saw so many birds!” my friend exclaimed.
We returned our eyes to the game.
Later, as Lot’s wife must have done,
in a pause of walking, not thinking
of calling down a consequence,
I lazily looked around.
The rise of the fairway above was tinted,
so evenly tinted I might not have noticed
but that at the rim of the delicate shadow
the starlings were thicker and outlined the flock
as an inkstain in drying pronounces its edges.
The gradual rise of green was vastly covered;
I had thought nothing in nature could be so broad but grass.
I watched, one bird,
prompted by accident or will to lead,
ceased resting; and, lifting in a casual billow,
the flock ascended as a lady’s scarf,
transparent, of gray, might be twitched
by one corner, drawn upward and then,
decided against, negligently tossed toward a chair:
the southward cloud withdrew into the air.
Long had it been since my heart
Had been lifted as it was by the lifting of that great scarf.
-Collected in Telephone Poles. (The title poem also lodged itself in me permanently.) In his Collected Poems, Updike cut the first and last stanzas from this poem, which I chastised him for at a church fair in Beverly Farms.
These remarks were delivered at the Congregational Church in Ipswich, with Updike family members also speaking.
Today is the anniversary of his passing, on January 27, 2009.