Staff Picks: The Poetry of John Updike

A book I’m glad to have read this year is the Selected Poems of John Updike. It brings me back to a day thirty years ago, when I took a bus out to Seton Hall University to hear Updike read. In a smallish lecture room he stood behind a lectern and, in a quiet voice adorned with the slightest lisp, he read... poems. The audience was surprised and perhaps a bit restive. Turns out Updike had agreed to do the reading only on the condition that it be poetry and not prose.   

Famed as a novelist and story writer, Updike loved poetry; “verse entranced him from the outset,” Brad Leithauser writes in his preface to this book. Updike published a vast amount of poetry. Some of it belongs to the near-vanished tradition of light verse, nimble amusements laced with puns and witty rhymes. In assembling this selection, editor Chris Carduff has bypassed the light verse to showcase poems in which Updike assayed the lyrical, the elegiac, and the frank. Like his prose, Updike’s poetry—much of it written in variations on the sonnet—highlights his skill in noticing the world, and his life in it, in trenchant and surprising ways. The poems convey wry humor, exquisite attentiveness to daily life, and an abiding preoccupation with mortality and time.

Some of my favorite Updike poems aren’t here (“The Blessing,” eg., or “Summer: West Side”), but plenty are:  “Ex-Basketball Player,” presenting a proto-Rabbit Angstrom; “Shillington,” Updike’s ode to his Pennsylvania hometown (“We have one home, the first, and leave that one./ The having and the leaving go on together.”); “Vermont;” “The Great Scarf of Birds;” “Dog’s Death;” “To Ed Sissman;” “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” And I’m glad to encounter others, like “Enemies of a House,” that I didn’t know before, but that impress with a virtuosity so casual, it’s breathtaking.

Finally there are the magnificent poems of Endpoint, which Updike finished in the ten-week interval between his diagnosis of end-stage lung cancer and his death in January of 2009. These extraordinarily courageous last poems reverberate with gratitude and praise for the beauties of love, family and friendship–prayerful poems of thanksgiving and sorrow, which I confess I cannot read without weeping.

The selection is assiduously annotated with helpful notes by Carduff and prefaced with insightful remarks by Leithauser, an accomplished novelist and poet himself, who notes “the companionable familiarity” that Updike’s poems offer the reader, and the “great intimacy” that accumulates as you make your way through them. The book is a must-have for Updike enthusiasts. 

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Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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