Friday, January 30, 2009

Poetry Friday: Updike, style vs. content, and glory days

John Updike died this week.

Love his work or or hate it (and I've done both, depending on the book), he was an incredible craftsman. Listen to this, from the above NYT obituary:

He wrote about America with boundless curiosity and wit in prose so careful and attentive that it burnished the ordinary with a painterly gleam.

Here he is in “A Sense of Shelter,” an early short story:

“Snow fell against the high school all day, wet big-flake snow that did not accumulate well. Sharpening two pencils, William looked down on a parking lot that was a blackboard in reverse; car tires had cut smooth arcs of black into the white, and wherever a school bus had backed around, it had left an autocratic signature of two V’s.”

The article continues:

The detail of his writing was so rich that it inspired two schools of thought on Mr. Updike’s fiction: those who responded to his descriptive prose as to a kind of poetry, a sensuous engagement with the world, and those who argued that it was more style than content.

Oh, but sometimes his style was enough.

Which actually goes against the grain, in general, of what I believe about art and what makes art worthwhile. It has to have content, meaning. Some inherent value that is more than just beauty on display.

But, oh ... sometimes his style was enough.

Both as a poet and as a novelist, Updike wrote about the glory days of the high school athlete, and of that athlete's later life. Rabbit Angstrom is one of the saddest characters in all of American fiction.

And, Rabbit seems to have had first stirrings in "Flick" -- here's a snippet of Ex Basketball Player, a poem written in 1954:

Once Flick played for the high-school team, the Wizards.
He was good: in fact, the best. In ’46
He bucketed three hundred ninety points,
A county record still. The ball loved Flick.
I saw him rack up thirty-eight or forty
In one home game. His hands were like wild birds

Read the rest of it here.

And read more about it here, in this short interview, Inside Game, at the Poetry Foundation, in which Updike calls poetry, "the exercise of language at its highest pitch."

Oh, yes. Sometimes his style was enough.

Call me weak.

Poetry Friday is being hosted today at Adventures in Daily Living.


Yat-Yee said...

I know what you mean by the balance between style and content. RIP Updike.

Anonymous said...

We have a book called "A Child's Calendar" that features his poetry for every month of the year and we love it!

Anonymous said...

A question I ponder daily. And one I can answer both ways. Intriguing post, Karen.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I've never read any of his prose. But A Child's Calendar is one of my absolute favorite books of poetry for children. I always choke up on the poem for November:

The ground is hard
As hard as stone.
The year is old,
The birds are flown.

And yet the world,
Displays a certain

The beauty of
The bone. Tall God
Must see our souls
This way, and nod.

Sara said...

I was wondering if someone would take up John Updike today. Bravo to you. I have so little interest in his subject matter that I've never gone very deep into his prose. Maybe one day.

Anonymous said...

Updike was so good he could make one love the game of baseball were it not already for all its other attributes. Consider this description of the last at-bat of Ted Williams' career:

Fisher, after his unsettling wait, was wide with the first pitch. He put the second one over, and Williams swung mightily and missed. The crowd grunted, seeing that classic swing, so long and smooth and quick, exposed, naked in its failure. Fisher threw the third time, Williams swung again, and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky. Brandt ran back to the deepest corner of the outfield grass; the ball descended beyond his reach and struck in the crotch where the bullpen met the wall, bounced chunkily, and, as far as I could see, vanished.

Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted "We want Ted" for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.

Anonymous said...

And the content was so incredibly varied. Even though I'm not a Rabbit fan, there were so many other Updike writings to read, and what I probably read most were his New Yorker pieces, from the poems to the book reviews to the Talk of the Town bits.

A few years ago my parents gave me the complete collection of The New Yorker on discs, and going through old issues I was delighted to find all of Updike's old Talk of the Town pieces, everything from the annual Christmas bird count (in Central Park of course!) to the smell of the subway tunnels in winter. What eyes and ears he had.

Karen Edmisten said...

Yes, incredible eyes and ears. I would really rather read his non-fiction and poetry, as his fiction is so drenched in his obsession. But his craftsmanship can even make me want to watch a baseball game.

Anonymous said...

My first Updike book was Rabbit, and I absolutely loved it. While I never did get to his poems, did enjoy all of his novels, what a fluid way to write, it was just always so real to me. The opening of Rabbit will always be my favorite. Luck indeed!

Anonymous said...

I grew up on Rabbit i loved it :)