His Matter Matters: Why I Like John Updike and Think You Should Too

updike_endpoint coverJohn Updike, who died on January 27, was best known as a novelist, and for good reason. He was prolific, publishing 24 novels in his lifetime (and there are rumors of one more on the way); popular (four of his books, including Rabbit, Run and The Witches of Eastwick, were best-sellers); and prize-winning — he snagged the National Book Award and two coveted Pulitzers, among other honors. Although I have not made much headway traversing the space he occupies on the library shelf, several of his novels are among my favorites, including Brazil, Toward the End of Time, and Gertrude and Claudius.

But I would bet that many of Updike’s novel-reading fans don’t know that he was also an accomplished short-story writer, essayist, critic, memoirist, playwright, children’s book author, and poet. And the latter Updike is the one I enjoyed most and would like to discuss here. So much has been written about him since his death from lung cancer at the age of 76 (here, for instance, and here, here, here, and here, etc.) that I am not sure what I can possibly add. So I thought I’d just say a little bit about why I prefer Updike the poet, what poems have appealed to me recently, and why I think he can matter to you.

First, what triggered me to consider writing this post was picking up a copy of Endpoint and Other Poems, which he completed only a few weeks before his death. I purchased the collection in early April and devoured it in a few sittings. It’s not hard to do. Endpoint is a slim, undersized volume, barely reaching 100 pages. That’s not unusual among books of poetry, but it’s a very un-Updikean accomplishment: his normal page-per-book output often ran to three or four times that amount. His largest single novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, bulked up to 512 pages; combined, the Rabbit Angstrom series runs to 1,568 pages. Meanwhile, More Matter, his 1999 collection of essays, comes to 900 printed pages and is hefty enough to serve as a doorstop — and I love the ironic “more” in the title, implying that there is another, similar repository of his “matter” out there somewhere.

Clearly, Updike was a man in love with words, and that’s what I loved best about him. His “matter” mattered to him (and to me). And he didn’t simply fill his books with vocables, the way many novelists do, using them merely as stepping-stones to advance the plot, or as gaudy arrangements to entice readers to turn page after page, book after book. No, he was mesmerized and enthralled by words, and he treated them with care and devotion, like objets d’art — the way a poet does. He chose his words with precision and lined them up across the page with purpose and for effect.

Of course, many critics faulted him for his logophilia. As Michael Dirda, points out, Updike’s “verbal dandyism” was so compelling,  “One admired the sentences instead of losing oneself in the story.” As a writer and reader, that never bothered me; in fact, I was thrilled when I first encountered him in a modern lit class in college — here was a novelist who wrote like a poet, I thought, a writer I could identify with and enjoyed reading. Wasting time admiring other people’s sentences is an occupational hazard I never avoid.

Updike’s notorious word-play is boldly on display in Endpoint and, like a Virginia creeper, it snakes out in “a leafy afterlife” on this “smooth-barked oak.” Take for example, the last few lines of “Doo-Wop,” a paean to the quartets of aged singers who occasionally reunite for public-television marathons, hitting all the right notes and causing the author to wonder, how have

they done it, come out whole the other side,
how did they do it, do it still, still doo?

Or, in “Elegy,” inspired by a news report that “Eastern equine encephalitis killed two emus” in small-town Massachusetts, the author laments,

Let every Eastern egg end-product grieve;
If emus die, egrets and eagles too
Can catch an evil equine bug, and leave
Our eager green Earth to the lark and gnu.

Updike had a fondness for all kinds of words, from the ancient, like vox, rapt, and bedad, and grandiose, like redolent and pervade, to the playful and exotic, as in these lines from “To A Well-Connected Mouse,” his tribute to fellow versifier Robert Burns (and to scientists’ discovery of the “genetic closeness of mice and men”):

Stay oot my larder, oot my traps,
An’ they’ll snap softer doon, p’rhaps,
For theft and murther blither go
When a’s i’ th’ family, bro’ an’ bro’.

He was especially fond of novelties, and he liberally peppered his lines with the jargon and buzzwords of the day, like “uphill fifteen-footer,” “guzzlers,”  “CAT-scan needle biopsy,” “FedExed,” “back-and-forthing,” “infotainment,” “pixels,” and “What’s up?” Using such indeterminate terms and phrases is not always a good decision and can, in less capable hands, sound trivial and trite. But Updike employs the ephemeral to create an immediacy and intimacy with readers and anchor his poems in time and place.

As he did with his novels, Updike wrote poems about ordinary, commonplace, American themes — such as golf and golfers, baseball, computer problems, arthritis, dollar bills, sex, vacation trips to Florida, suburbia, politics, movies — but with elegance and lyricism. Consider his indictment of our passive consumption of advertisements that gush from the faucet-like TV, promising a “better life” if we make “some needful acquisition”:

these spurts of light are drunk in by my brain,
which sickens quickly, till it thirst again.

Often, Updike’s poems read like extended passages of observation cut from his longer works, as if pausing in his novel-writing he dashed off a poem to carry a metaphor or simile further than he could (or should) in prose. This is most evident in “Twinkletape,” a page-long description of how discarded recording tape, which “glints and twinkles” along the roadside, “snagged in the median strip,” can appear like “scintillant / dragons” or “the bullets of a battle” or “like the fireflies / of boyhood summers.”

One major factor in Updike’s choice of fictive modalities is that, unlike novels, poems allowed him to point the pen (and resultant commentary) squarely at himself. Instead of hiding behind the mask of a character, Updike used poetry to speak plainly and directly about his personal life. The titular sequence that opens Endpoint and Other Poems serves as a memoir of sorts, and reminds me of James Laughlin’s poem “Byways,” revealing characters from and key moments in the life of an important literary figure. For instance, we learn that Updike learned his craft by observing the literary failures of his mother, who “knew non-publication’s shame, / obscurity’s abyss,” as time and again the “brown envelopes” would be returned, “bent double / in letter slots to flop on the foyer floor.”

Also, he admits in “The Author Observes His Birthday, 2005,” that, as much as he loved fiddling with words — finding the exact ones he needed or making them up when he couldn’t — his greatest joy may have been seeing his “halt words strut in type,” whether printed on the page or on book spines that would

line up upon the shelf, one more each year,
however out of kilter ran my life!

By getting published and wearing a “suit and tie,” he discovered, a poet could become, “like ‘fuck’ in print, respectable.”

Finally, like fellow storyteller Raymond Carver did in his fine final book of poems, A New Path to the Waterfall, Updike spends much of “Endpoint” dealing openly and candidly with the news of his terminal illness: Shortly after taking a Valium-enhanced ride in a CAT scanner (“a dulcet tube in which I lay secure and warm .. [thinking] creative thoughts”), the test

results came casually through:
the gland, biopsied, showed metastasis.

Was Updike a good poet, a “great” poet? I don’t know. Many critics categorize his poetry as “light,” as if because he was playful and poignant, rather than erudite and esoteric, his verse is somehow less weighty and, thus, less important than others’. I don’t trust such distinctions, which stink of sweaty publishing politics and gamesmanship. Updike was a poet of keen observation and deep verbal devotion; he simply showed less interest in philosophy or experimentation. And that’s what appeals to me. Modernism and its related “heavy,” impenetrable -isms have failed, and we’ve been served enough poetic experimentalism (like this un-Whitman sampler) to last several lifetimes. No, what we need most (and can never get enough of) is good craftsmen who can say a lot in a little space.

The last section of “Spirit of ’76,” one of the sections in his long title poem, could serve as a devotional for any aspiring writer and word-worshiper:

Be with me, words, a little longer; you
have given me my quitclaim in the sun,
sealed shut my adolescent wounds, made light
of grownup troubles, turned to my advantage
what in most lives would be pure deficit,
and formed, of those I loved, more solid ghosts.

Although he made his living primarily as a novelist, Updike always considered writing poetry “a special joy” and believed his career as a writer was launched when The New Yorker published his first poem. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the last book he prepared for publication, literally from his deathbed, is a collection of poems.

As always, leave a comment and let me know what you think of this week’s post.


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