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Though John Updike is widely known as one of America’s greatest writers of prose, both his first book and his last were poetry collections, and in the fifty years between he published six other volumes of verse. Now, six years after his death, Christopher Carduff has selected the best from Updike’s lifework in poetry: 129 witty and intimate poems that, when read together in the order of their composition, take on the quality of an unfolding verse-diary.
Among these poems are precocious undergraduate efforts (including the previously unpublished “Coming into New York”), frequently anthologized midcareer classics (“Seagulls,” “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” “Dog’s Death”), and dozens of later works in a form that Updike made his own, the blank-verse sonnet. The poems range from metaphysical epigrams and devotional poems to lyrical odes to rot, growth, and healing; from meditations on Roman portrait busts and the fleshy canvases of Lucian Freud to observations on sash cords, postage stamps, and hand tools; from several brief episodes in family history to a pair of long autobiographical poems, the antic and eclectic “Midpoint,” written at age thirty-five, and the elegiac masterpiece “Endpoint,” completed just before his death at seventy-six. The variety of the work is astonishing, the craftsmanship always of the highest caliber.
Art, science, popular culture, foreign travel, erotic love, the beauty of the man-made and the God-given worlds—these recurring topics provided Updike ever-surprising occasions for wonder and matchless verbal invention. His Selected Poems is, as Brad Leithauser writes in his introduction, a celebration of American life in the second half of the twentieth century: “No other writer of his time captured so much of this passing pageant. And that he did so with brio and delight and nimbleness is another reason to celebrate our noble celebrant.”
ten shades of gray, And herald Everyman’s beginning day. The Clergyman, beside the sighing bed, Strains for a sign of Credence from the dead. The Lawyer eagle-eyed for Falsehood’s glint, The Doctor bent on Hardening’s murmured hint, The Biochemist analyzing sera, The Astrophysicist alone with Lyra, The Archaeologist with pick and brush, The Nature-walker having heard a thrush— Attentiveness! The pinpoint is the locus Of Excellence in lands of softened focus. Applaud your Neighbor;
month is June; the seasonal flags and potted memorial flowers still are fresh. Sole visitor, by knocking with my eyes on graven, polished portals set in rows I find here what the live town lacks, some friends— some people I once knew. Many the time, from well within our hedged-in yard, or out our cloudy front-room windows, did I spy with awe and wonderment the pure-white head of Pappy Shilling, whose father had been the town’s creator and Ur-citizen, the subdivider of a primal farm.
passionate sweetness, bit by bit, the vigor from the red, the blazing blue, so that the listening eye saw suddenly the thick black lines, in shapes of shield and cross and strut and brace, that held the holy glowing fantasy together. The music surged; the glow became a milk, a whisper to the eye, a glimmer ebbed until our beating hearts, our violins were cased in thin but solid sheets of lead. ELEGY FOR A REAL GOLFER Payne Stewart, I remember courtesy of TV how you nearly burst in
set of scattered tombs”: The Museum of Edgar Allan Poe, established 1922, comprises three buildings on Richmond’s Main Street—the Old Stone House (for Poe’s personal effects), the Model Building (for the eighteen-foot model of the early-nineteenth-century city), and a building for temporary exhibits. Line 14, “Virginia”: Poe’s wife, the former Virginia Eliza Clemm, died of tuberculosis in 1847, at the age of twenty-four. from Seven Odes to Seven Natural Processes These three odes are from a
conceded, “We will stop printing The New York Times sometime in the future.” Paper isn’t in the paper’s future. Its destiny is digital, and Updike’s poem, however unwittingly, gathers to itself an elegiac air. Once a symbol of the up-to-the-minute, our morning newspapers become, in the fullness of time, objects as quaint as a manger; their percussive thump upon a concrete front porch joins the musical cooing of the passenger pigeon. Reflecting on his grandmother’s thimble, the young Updike saw