Remarks – on the poems of John Updike

I discovered John Updike’s poetry before his prose, as a college student, reading The Carpentered Hen and Facing Nature on the rocks of West Beach a few miles north of here.

I wrote him a letter praising his work, quoting lines like

“Hosannas of cotton and hallelujahs of wool,” and
“The elms seemed swaying vases full of sky,” and
                                             “They smile because
They know we know, they know we know.”

And he wrote back saying, “Thanks for your kind words about my poetry, which I’ve been neglecting lately, probably due to a dearth of kind words.”

He wouldn’t neglect it for long, of course.  Poetry comforted him, he said, “with its hope of permanence, its packaging of flux,” its “triumphant sense of capture.”  He called his poems “my oeuvre’s beloved waifs.”

I love the humor and the metaphors in his poems—his eye for resemblances, for connecting dissimilar things to help me see them better, which is a mark of genius, according to Aristotle.

You get his genius (and his humor) in this short poem, one he wrote when he was 21.

Why the Telephone Wires Dip and the Poles are Cracked and Crooked

The old men say
young men in gray
hung this thread across our plains
acres and acres ago.

But we, the enlightened, know
in point of fact it’s what remains
of the flight of a marvelous crow
no one saw:
Each pole, a caw.

collected in The Carpentered Hen, 1958, Harper & Brothers. “I still remember the shudder, the triumphant sense of capture, with which I got these lines down, not long after my twenty-first birthday.” J.U.

 

And again, his metaphor-making, in this poem, the last I’ll read.

Before I read it I’ll say:
I loved living near him, bumping into my absolute my favorite writer in the world, at the post office or Harry’s or KC’s or The Book Store—a shop, I expect, he single-handedly put on firm footing.  That he was living and writing and driving his gray Taurus around here ennobled this shore, and me, in some way—

     “as in some mythologies [to quote him]
     beautiful gods stroll unconcerned
     among our mortal apprehensions.”

Alas, this is not the same place without him.

 

The Melancholy of Storm Windows

We touch them at the raw turns
of the year—November
with its whipped trees and cellar sky,
and April, whose air
promises more than the earth
seems willing to yield.
They are unwieldy, of wood, and their panes
monotonously ask the same question—Am I clean?

No, the answer is.
They fit less well, we feel, each year.
But the weather lowers,
watery and wider than a tide,
and if a seam or leak of light shows, well,
nothing’s perfect under Heaven.
Our mortal shell,
they used to call the body.

In need of paint, they heave
up from the cellar and back down again
like a species of cloud,
shedding a snow of flakes and grime.
They rotate heavy in our hands; the screwdriver
stiffly twirls; the Windex swipes evaporate
in air ominous of coming worse
or, at winter’s end, of Easter entombment,
of cobwebbed storage among belittling ants
while the grasshopper world above basks.

Stacked, they savor of the crypt,
of the unvisitable nook
and the stinking pipe, irreparable.
In place, they merely mitigate
death’s whisper at the margins,
the knifing chill that hisses how
the Great Outer cares not a pin for our skins
and the airtight hearts that tremble therein.

We, too, are warped each fall.
They resemble us, storm windows,
in being gaunt, in losing putty,
in height, transparency, fragility—
weak slabs, poor shields, dull clouds.
Ambiguous, we have no place
where we, once screwed, can say, That’s it.

collected in Tossing and Turning, 1977, Knopf
-remarks delivered at Lynch Park in Beverly, Mass. Some of John’s children were present, including Michael Updike, who is a sculptor. He had not known the “Telephone Wires” poem, he said, and later carved it onto the back of Updike’s gravestone in Plowville.

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