john updike | 1932 – 2009

18 03 2011

PoetryDispatch No. 343 | March 18, 2011


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.

John Updike from “Spirit of ‘76”

Editor’s Note: This is John Updike’s birthday, March 18th. He would have been 79 years old today. He wrote a number of poems about his birthdays; some of which appear in the collection, ENDPOINT, a final book of poetry written in the last years of life, which he put together weeks before his death.

There are only seventeen poems in the first section of the book, titled “Endpoint” and many more in the sections “Other Poems”, “Sonnets”, and “Light and Personal.” But none of them speak to me as personally as his poems in the title section. Endpoint, indeed. All three poems quoted below seem to be written for me…to me.

I have loved and identified with Updike’s work since he first came upon the writing scene in the 1950’s. I have his first novel and all those that came after, , his first collection of short stories, his books of poems and essays. I read his very first stories published in The New Yorker.

He published a hundred and forty-six stories in The New Yorker from l954 to his last one, “One Full Glass” in 2008. He wrote twenty-three novels. And so much more. No other writer covered the outer and inner landscape of American life the way he did. He surpassed Hemingway, Steinbeck, Mailer…you name him, her. And no one writing today can come even close. There is always something else he was trying to get hold of, show us, tell us.

Reading Updike was reading about me. Not a bad thing to discover when you are starting out, trying to ‘write yourself.’ Oh, there were many other models out there as well. Many others who had my ear, heart, head. But no one put me back into the comforts of my own childhood, my own home and neighborhood, my own sense of time, place, social history the way Updike did with his stories, the ordinary things he saw and transformed in the telling. His Shillington, PA was my Cicero, Il. Our boyhoods were incredibly similar. Parallel lives and experiences in so many ways. To his very end he lent peace and satisfaction in this way. I couldn’t wait to pick up my weekly copy of The New Yorker every Saturday night and possibly find a new story by Updike. I meant to write him his/our entire lifetime, but never got around to it. Updike would be around forever.

I miss him immensely these days. I keep discovering and rediscovering his works. I lost track of his “Bech” books over ten years ago…and read all three of them in a row two weeks ago. Yes another side to Updike. Funny (and sad) as hell. His satiric take of the life and times of a ‘minor’ American writer. (Read “Updike” for “Bech” though he casts him a Jewish-American writer.)

But to get back to the poems below. There’s a lot of darkness in my life today, in my writing as well (the little I’ve been able to accomplish) but darkness comes with the writing territory from day one Most writers, however, keep shoving ii in the back (there’s youth and love and desire and so many other things) till it finally confronts them face to face. Full measure. Accident, failing health, depression, old age…death. There it is. Here you are. Hemingway ran away from it his entire life. Can a light on in the dark as a grown man. Then found the ways and means to put out the light for good, when it was time.

Updike handles this period of time in lines true to himself and all of his life that he committed to paper. Looking over his shoulder with a goodbye almost-smile to all that has been. Shakespearean soaring and sounding sometimes. A certain sadness for sure. His way of finding just the right words to express his own end…the times he illuminated for us all… which seem more like prayers of forgiveness, of thanksgiving, of life eternal.

Happy Birthday, John.

norbert blei

The Author Observes His Birthday, 2005

A life poured into words—apparent waste
intended to preserve the thing consumed.
For who, in that unthinkable future
when I am dead, will read? The printed page
was just a half-millennium’s brief wonder,
Erasmus’s and Luther’s Gutenberg-
perfected means of propagating truth,
or lies, screw-pressed one folio at a time.

A world long dulled by plagues and plainsong warmed
to metal’s kiss, the cunning kerns and serifs,
the Gothic spears and rounded Roman forms,
the creamy margins smartly justified,
the woodcuts showing naked Mother Eve:
a rage to read possessed the peasantry.

The church was right; the Bible freed
spelled trouble. Literate Protestants waged war,
and smashed the Lady Chapels all to Hell,
new-style. No Pope, no priests, no Purgatory—
instead, clear windows and the pilgrim soul,
that self which tribal ways suppressed, and whose
articulation asked a world of books.

A small-town Lutheran tot, I fell in love
with comic strips, Benday, and talk balloons.
The daily paper brought us headlined war
and labor strife; I passed them by en route
to the fannies section, where no one died
or even, saving Chic Young’s Blondie, aged.

My harried father told me, “Dog eat dog.”
I opted for a bloodless universe
of inked imaginings. My mother’s books
from college—Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott,
Lane Cooper, Sinclair Lewis, H. G. Wells—
made peaceful patterns with their faded spines.
I didn’t open them, unleashing dogs
too real for me, but sniffed their gentle smell

of paper, glue, and cloth. My many dreams
of future puissance—as a baseball star,
test pilot, private eye, cartoonist, or
as Errol Flynn or Fred Astaire—did not
include a hope to be the hidden hand
and mind behind some musty, clothbound maze.

But, then, to see my halt words strut in type!
To see The Poorhouse Fair in galley proofs
and taste the candy jacket Harry Ford cooked
up for me! And then to have my spines
line up upon the shelf, one more each year,
however out of kilter ran my life!
I drank up women’s tears and spat them out
as l0-point Janson, Roman and ital.

When Blanche and Alfred took me out to lunch
he sent the wine right back. How swell, I thought.
Bill Maxwell’s treat was Japanese; we sat
cross-legged on the floor and ate fish raw,
like gulls. In suit and tie, an author proved
to be, like “fuck” in print, respectable.

Back then, my children, in those simpler years
before all firms were owned by other firms,
the checks would come imprinted with a dog,
a bounding Borzoi, or the profile of
a snooty figment, Eustace Tilley. He
was like a god to me, the guardian
of excellence; he weighed my mailed-in words
and paid a grand or so for tales he liked.

A thousand dollars then meant we could eat
for months. A poem might buy a pair of shoes.
My life, my life with children, was a sluice
that channeled running water to my pan;
by tilting it, and swirling lightly, I
at end of day might find a fleck of gold.

A writer, stony-hearted as he seems,
needs nurturing. My mother’s Remington
tip-tapped through all my childhood fevers, aimed
at realms beyond the sickbed, porch, and yard.
Though Pennsylvania Dutch, she fell in love
with Spain, its wistful knights and Catholic queens
and tried, tip-tap, to stretch her Remington
across the gap of space and time, and failed.

I took off from her failure. Katharine White
saw in me fodder for her magazine,
and Judith Jones, from 1960 on,
abetted all my books, an editor
excelling as encourager, who found
the good intention even in a botch.

My aspirations met indulgent spirits
long resident in Ink, Inc.’s castle keep:
I somehow wasn’t Jewish, which made me
minority and something of a pet.
When Mr. Shawn, the magus in his cave,
went pink, he whispered friendly oracles.
Urbane and dapper Sidney Jacobs, head
of Knopf production, gave a pica stick

to me that I still measure by, and books
of fonts I still consult. Wry Howard Moss
allowed my poems safe passage now and then.
A host of minions supervised my grammar;
a brace of wives forgave my doubtful taste.

Today, the author hits three score thirteen,
an age his father, woken in the night
by pressure on his heart, fell short of. Still,
I scribble on. My right hand occupies
the center of my vision, faithful old
five-fingered beast of burden, dappled with
some psoriatic spots I used to hate,
replaced by spots of damage the crude sun-cure

extracted from my dermis through the years.
The beast is dry and mottled, shedding skin
as minutes drop from life, a wristy piece
of dogged ugliness, its labors meant
to carve from language beauty, that beauty which
lifts free of flesh to find itself in print.

Hospital 11/23–27/08
Mass. General, Boston

Benign big blond machine beyond all price,
it swallows us up and slowly spits us out
half-deafened and our blood still dyed: all this
to mask the simple dismal fact that we
decay and find our term of life is fixed.
This giant governance, a mammoth toy,
distracts us for the daytime, but the night
brings back the quiet, and the solemn dark.

God save us from ever ending, though billions have.
The world is blanketed by foregone deaths,
small beads of ego, bright with appetite,
whose pin-sized prick of light winked out,
bequeathing Earth a jagged coral shelf
unseen beneath the black unheeding waves.
My visitors, my kin. I fall into
the conversational mode, matching it
to each old child, as if we share a joke
(of course we do, the dizzy depths of years)
and each grandchild, politely quizzing them
on their events and prospects, all the while
suppressing, like an acid reflux, the lack
of prospect black and bilious for me.

Must I do this, uphold the social lie
that binds us all together in blind faith
that nothing ends, not youth nor age nor strength,
as in a motion picture which, once seen,
can be rebought on DVD? My tongue
says yes; within, I lamely drown.

I think of those I loved and saw to die:
my Grampop in his nightshirt on the floor;
my first-wife’s mother, unable to take a bite
of Easter dinner, smiling with regret;
my mother in her blue knit cap, alone
on eighty acres, stuck with forty cats,
too weak to walk out to collect the mail,
waving brave good-bye from her wind-chimed porch.

And friends, both male and female, on the phone,
Their voices dry and firm, their ends in sight.
My old piano teacher joking, of her latest
diagnosis, “Curtains.”” I brushed them off,
these valorous, in my unseemly haste
of greedy living, and now must learn from them.
Endpoint, I thought, would end a chapter in
a book beyond imagining, that got reset
in crisp exotic type a future I
—a miracle!—could read. My hope was vague
but kept me going, amiable and swift.
A clergyman—those comical purveyors
of what makes sense to just the terrified—
has phoned me, and I loved him, bless his hide.

My wife of thirty years is on the phone.
I get a busy signal, and I know
she’s in her grief and needs to organize
consulting friends. But me, I need her voice;
her body is the only locus where
my desolation bumps against its end.

Peggy Lutz, Fred Muth 12/13/08

They’ve been in my fiction; both now dead,
Peggy just recently, long stricken (like
my Grandma) with Parkinson’s disease.
But what a peppy knockout Peggy was!—
cheerleader, hockey star, May Queen, RN.
Pigtailed in kindergarten, she caught my mother’s
eye, but she was too much girl for me.
Fred—so bright, so quietly wry—his

mother’s eye fell on me, a “nicer” boy
than her son’s pet pals. Fred’s slight wild streak
was tamed by diabetes. At the end,
it took his toes and feet. Last time we met,
his walk rolled wildly, fetching my coat. With health
he might have soared. As was, he taught me smarts.
Dear friends of childhood, classmates, thank you,
scant hundred of you, for providing a
sufficiency of human types: beauty,
bully, hanger-on, natural,
twin, and fatso—all a writer needs,
all there in Shillington, its trolley cars
and little factories, cornfields and trees,
leaf fires, snowflakes, pumpkins, valentines.

To think of you brings tears less caustic
than those the thought of death brings. Perhaps
we meet our heaven at the start and not
the end of life. Even then were tears
and fear and struggle, but the town itself
draped in plain glory the passing days.

The town forgave me for existing; it
included me in Christmas carols, songfests
(though I sang poorly) at the Shillington,
the local movie house. My father stood,
in back, too restless to sit, but everybody
knew his name, and mine. In turn I knew
my Granddad in the overalled town crew.
I’ve written these before, these modest facts,

but their meaning has no bottom in my mind.
The fragments in their jiggled scope collide
to form more sacred windows. I had to move t
o beautiful New England—its triple
deckers, whited churches, unplowed streets—
to learn how drear and deadly life can be.

[from ENDPOINT and Other Poems, Knopf, 2009]




4 responses

18 03 2011
John Bennett

Norb … thanks much for this Upkike post. I’ve passed it along to my list….

18 03 2011
Julie Austin

This poem is surely the only one on this particular subject.

“The Beautiful Bowel Movement”

by John Updike

Though most of them aren’t much to write about—
mere squibs and nubs, like half-smoked pale cigars,
the tint and stink recalling Tuesday’s meal,
the texture loose and soon dissolved—this one,
struck off in solitude one afternoon
(that prairie stretch before the late light fails)
with no distinct sensation, sweet or pained,
of special inspiration or release,
was yet a masterpiece: a flawless coil,
unbroken, in the bowl, as if a potter
who worked in this most frail, least grateful clay
had set himself to shape a topaz vase.
O spiral perfection, not seashell nor
stardust, how can I keep you? With this poem.

18 03 2011
Jean Casey

Thanks for this. He was truly a gem!

16 08 2011
Barbara Nowak-Schreiber

Thank God John Updike wrote a lot!
Thanks for posting this!

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