That John Updike wrote poems as well as novels is news to few people who follow contemporary poetry. Before his death, a common view of Updikes poetry was that it was light, entertaining stuff that he wrote to refresh himself after the serious work of fiction. After his death, however, a number of critics have hailed it as the elephant in the room of contemporary American poetry. In his review of Endpoint for The New York Times , for example, Clive James writes that while Updike did not write much poetry, a single poem (Bird Caught in My Deer Netting) proves that he not only had the whole tradition of English-language poetry in his head, he had the means to add to it. For Michael Dirda of The Washington Post , Updike hits his Mortal Mark in the collection.
Critics tend to demonize the living and glorify the dead. There is a little bit of the latter going on in Jamess review in particular. If we ignore the hyperbole, however, his main point”that Updike was indeed a serious poet, albeit a minor one because of the relative sparseness of his poetry”is correct. Yet, it seems to me, James fails to identify the right domain of Updikes accomplishment. He hangs his hat on the few serious poems that exhibit all the linguistic vigour of the prose that had made his novels compulsory reading. This is misplaced to the extent that it dismisses Updikes light verse and occasional poems, and it is in these poems, I believe, that Updikes true poetic accomplishment is located.
Technically, the term occasional in poetry refers to poems written for a specific, often official, occasion. There is a sense, however, in which all art is occasional. All art is grounded in the particularities of human experience. This is one of the things that makes art art and not philosophy. For Sir Philip Sidney, for example, poetry embodies virtues and vices in finite situations. It does not define love in the abstract. It shows us what love looks like. For Rainer Maria Rilke, poetry names objects of experience”house, / bridge, well, gate”and provides them with a fullness of being; for Boris Pasternak, poetry is an expression of what life feels like now. Even Wallace Stevens, who stated that poetry must be abstract, cannot escape the particularities of his experience. His poems are full of things”snow, blackbirds, oranges”and sounds.
Yet, while certain poets embrace the occasional nature of artistic expression, including the everyday, others wish to escape it altogether and express disdain for the light, naive verse of the everyday poets. No doubt a lot of sentimental, metered prose wrongly passes for poetry today. So too does a lot of obfuscation. Indeed, if difficult poetry is the natural result of a powerful mind examining the complex problems of the world, it can have other less noble, less intellectually compelling sources, as well.
One of those sources, as Czeslaw Milosv argues in Against Incomprehensible Poetry, is the rejection of the personal and transcendent God of Christianity and the rise of the poet as a priest or prophet of Art. Following the work of the French Symbolists, certain poets produced inscrutable texts to both create and confirm their superior position above the masses. Understood in this way, poetry does not represent the longings, fears, virtues, and vices of the human mind but gives form to the primordial, hitherto unexpressed force at work in the world. These forms can, in turn, be scrutinized for their residue of spiritual sentiment, to use Georges Braques term. This effort, Milosv argues, quoting Ortega y Gasset, entailed a dehumanization of art”a movement away from drama, emotion, and feeling and toward radical formal experimentation.
Whether Milosv is correct or not regarding the influence of Symbolism, there is no doubt that there has been a dehumanization of art. If for the Symbolists the poet was a priest, today he is a grammarian. Having rejected the notion of a transcendent, moral God, a number of modern scientists and artists reduce human nature to its constituent parts. Consequently, the material of the lyric”love, virtue, vice, and all other qualia”are reduced to the firings of neurons. This often leaves the poet little choice but to use what is left of meaning in language to create puns, jokes, and wordplays by the tossing of a coin”to become, in other words, Tom Stoppards Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
It is against this dehumanization of the arts that Updikes occasional poetry can, in part, be understood. Without overstating the case, the treatment of everyday situations and objects of which the I of the poet is the center can be understood as an effort to maintain a sense of self in the arts. Faced by the attacks of a secularized modern science against all that is human, Updikes occasional poems and light verse function as a testament of the self, to borrow Frank OHaras term, rightly pointing to the irreducibility of human emotions and feeling while, at the same time, highlighting the selfs multiple and seemingly inescapable contradictions.
Updikes Endpoint is full of the finite particulars of modern existence. In the long title poem, which begins on the poets birthday in 2002 and ends the month before his death, Updike charts his attachment to the material world”an attachment that is both exhilarating and empty, powerful and fleeting. The final line of the opening section of the poem states the central motif of the volume: Birthday, death day”what day is not both? Everywhere the poet looks”from Connecticut winters, news of Payne Stewarts death, and malls in Tucson to the architecture of St. Petersburg and thunderstorms in Vermont”he is reminded of both the fullness of life and its impermanence. The arthritis of his left hand reminds him of his hands relatively leisurely life compared to that of his right and the irony that it must be the first to suffer the foretaste of death. He recalls how Frankie Laines voice in the sweet shop of his youth soared, assuring us of finding our / desire, which, of course, would be both fulfilled and unfilled. The expanse and silence of snow is both peaceful and frightening, and the golden leaves are both strikingly beautiful and dead, piled up demanding disposal.
One of the ironies, however, of establishing the contours of feeling is that as ones sense of self increases, death becomes all the more unbearable:
I settle in, to that decade in which,
Im told, most people die. Then, flying south,
I wonder why houses in their patterned crowds
look white, whatever their earthbound colors,
from the air. Golf courses, nameless rivers.
The pilot takes us down Manhattans spine”
the projects, Riverside cathedral, Midtown
bristling up like some coarse porcupine.
We seem too low, my palms begin to sweat.
The worst can happen, we know it from the news.
Age I must, but die I would rather not.
As the poet gains altitude and is removed from the Raw days of winter, the world below him loses its distinction. All the houses are white. Golf courses and woods become like rivers and the sea. Yet, as the plane descends and the world gains in detail”Manhattans spine first becomes visible, followed rapidly by Riverside cathedral”fear grips the poet: We seem too low, my palms begin to sweat. It is this fear, brought on by the sudden detail of the world, with which Updike struggles throughout the book. For lifes a shabby subterfuge, he writes, And death is real, and dark, and huge. / The shock of it will register / Nowhere but where it will occur.
However, rather than escape this fear via abstraction (which is, perhaps, another source of obfuscation in poetry), he confronts it head on, names it with all the detail his mind can summon, and, in the end, turns to the faith of his childhood:
The tongue reposes in papyrus pleas,
saying, Surely ”magnificent, that surely”
goodness and mercy shall follow me all
the days of my life , my life, forever.
Surely, of course, can be both an expression of hope and doubt. Here, however, it seems that hope wins. For it is while looking back at his life and seeing Gods goodness and mercy that the poet looks toward the darkness of death and in faith speaks the words, my life, forever. Like Saint Augustine, perhaps, so with Updike: The restlessness of youth, of Rabbit, is replaced with a hope to inherit that final rest, that fullness of existence forever.
Thus, while light verse and occasional poems can be just that”light and occasional”in the work of most poets, in the hands of the best poets”and Updike is perhaps one of them”they become the tools of serious philosophical, ethical, and even theological work. If, as Geoffrey Hill claims, the poets excavation of the obscure meanings of words is a means of pointing us toward that terrible aboriginal calamity, so, too, does Updikes use of words point us toward what is everywhere obvious, but often ignored”that life is both a passionate sweetness and a desolation, evoking both dreams of the afterlife in Acres of gold leaf, feathered into place and nightmares of a never-ending death.
Micah Mattix is an assistant professor of English at Louisiana College.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?