Friday, May 27, 2011

Updike's unmodernist poetry

Updike, like Frost, Williams, Hardy and Larkin, never wrote a modernist poem. He too speaks in his own voice out of his own experience of the real, the given, the substantial world. Metaphors and other figures of speech, do not become symbols of spiritual things or meanings outside or unsupported by tangible connections with the real, the given, the substantial world.  When Updike was growing up in Shillington, Pennsylvania, he felt no hankering to be another Rimbaud—or Wallace Stevens. He wanted to be a cartoonist.

He wrote his first poem when he was 21, and has this to say about it in the "Preface" to his Collected Poems 1953-1993: "The very first poem here, bearing a comically long title, yet conveyed, with a compression unprecedented in my brief writing career the mythogenetic truth of telephone wires and poles marching across a stretch of Pennsylvania farmland. I still remember the shudder, the triumphant sense of capture with which I got these lines down, not long after my twenty-first birthday."
          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 marvellous crow
             no one saw:
             each pole a caw.

Here's another poem I like, written about thirty years later:


            Pain flattens the world—its bubbles
            of bliss, its epiphanies, its upright
            sticks of day-to-day business—
            And shows us what seriousness is.

            And shows us, too, how those around us
            cannot get in; they cannot share
            our being. Though men talk big
            and challenge silence with laughter

            and women bring their engendering smiles
            and eyes of famous mercy,
            these kind things slide away
            like rain beating on a filthy window

            when pain interposes.
            What children's pageant in gauze
            filled the skulls ballroom before
            the caped dark stranger commanded, Freeze?
            Life is worse than mere folly.  We live
            within a cage wherefrom escape
            annihilates the captive; this, too,
            pain leads us to consider anew.

I could show you many more poems that would be worth your attention; I prefer tell you about certain qualities in Updike's poetry that I don't much care for. He has more to say about his sex life than I at least want to hear. And he likes to show us how much he knows about science—and how wittily he can write about such deep matters as entropy or the valence bonds that bind atoms in molecules. His poem about the moons of Jupiter is a tour de force; but that's all it is.

I don't understand why this poet makes so little use of rhyme—and the music of rhyme— in his 'serious' poetry. (You can feel the power of rhyme as you feel the power of "pain" as it "leads" us to reconsider our view of life in the poem I have just showed you.) Rhyme, he thinks, belongs in "light verse", which he carefully separates off from the good stuff in a special section at the end of the book. It's as if he were afraid of his own wit, afraid that his serious poetry might be contaminated by it. But wit is what makes his good poetry good; a little more music would have made it better. Remember what the Duke said: "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."

I welcome comments from Updike's other admirers. Stick to the poetry though.



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