John Updike's poetry accentuates the ordinary

May 23, 1993|By Stephen Margulies


John Updike.


` 387 pages. $27.50.

Shocking! Yes, even happiness can be shocking. What right does a famous contemporary novelist, essayist and poet have to call himself happy? Are not all our writers sacred pariahs, branded and damned by a cruelly materialistic culture? And yet John Updike has said in his memoir, "Self-Consciousness," that he is "an amiable, reasonable, interested, generally healthy, HTC sexually normal, dependable, hopeful, fortunate human being." He boasts that his second wife stated publicly that he was "the best-tempered person she had ever known." Certainly, Mr. Updike celebrates "the cheerful fullness of things," as he admits in a poem characteristically called "Burning Trash" from his recently published "Collected Poems: 1953-1993."

Yet Mr. Updike's memoirs also delineate his numerous diseases and humiliations: psoriasis, bad teeth, asthma, stuttering, infidelity, Christian guilt, lower-class upbringing. And one of the many small but ruddily real pleasures of "Collected Poems" is that we discover, astonishingly, that healthy John Updike identifies with one of our sickest and most sacred of pariahs, Sylvia Plath, who killed herself 30 years ago.

Each was born in 1932 and grew up "believing having a wonderful life began/with being a good student; the certainty/that words would count . . ." Each blossomed in a '50s America abloom with supposed normalcy. With surprising humility, Mr. Updike addresses a Plath martyred by that normalcy: "You, dead at thirty, leaving blood-soaked poems . . ./and I still wheezing, my works overweight; and yet we feel twins . . ."

At his best, Mr. Updike the prose writer can make "abundantly leafy" normalcy look like the Garden of Eden -- though there is a dirty and dubious smokestack where the Tree of Life should be. At his boastful and insensitive worst, Mr. Updike can give normalcy a bad name, as when, in one of his more lightweight poems, he excoriates talented critics whose odd crime is that they all have Jewish names. Or, similarly, when he scoffs at Beat poets whosefirst name is Kenneth; i.e., Rexroth, Patchen, etc. Sometimes, Mr. Updike's utterly valid adoration of the ordinary leads him to devalue what he permits himself to see as "odd."

But the lyrical humility of his poem on Plath is actually one of the steady virtues of "Collected Poems." In Mr. Updike's preface, he praises poetry perhaps at his own expense-- since his strength is in fiction. Poetry is ". . . a standing invitation to the highest kind of verbal exercise -- the most satisfying, the most archaic . . . poetry has comforted me with the packaging of flux."

For the most part, his poetic "verbal exercises" have something of the unarrogant grace of good cartoons. Mr. Updike started out as a cartoonist. Though he divides "Collected Poems" into serious poems and light verse, the distinction is sometimes very slight: A poem "derives from the real" and light verse "from the man-made world of information."

Mr. Updike's poems are rarely gifted with the emotional and linguistic gold of his fiction. Like a good cartoonist, however, he can quickly draw anything in the world and make us like it and recognize it. The immense accessible world of normalcy is amiably caricatured in his poems. Though seldom "inspired," "Collected Poems" is persistently entertaining because Mr. Updike, despite occasional spasms of small-minded obnoxiousness, has the ability to constantly bless and identify variety.

Any page will yield up bits of the anxiously luminous dust of our experience: telephone polls, stadium bleachers, sea gulls, menstruation, a movie house, fireworks, the wash, golf, Ohio, angels, a dying dog, sunlamps, the spaceship Voyager. Mr. Updike believes in the vulgar casualness of glory. Immodest modesty sparkles here -- like his wife in the bathtub. He himself says: "I have no taste -- I want to be, like Nature, tasteless, abundant, reckless, cheerful . . ."

John Updike almost achieves this goal of reckless, cheerful abundance in his two most "inspired" poems: the autobiographical long poem "Midpoint" and "Seven Odes to Seven Natural Processes."

"Midpoint" is unusually, even desperately, modernistic for Mr. Updike, since it rather awkwardly makes a collage out of autobiography, free verse, classical couplets, sex and science. It includes photographs from his childhood, which have the very grainy texture of tabloid photographs, and even diagrams and graffiti.

Mr. Updike may be a messy perfectionist but he is a perfectionist. The physical beauty of the design of his many books is exemplified by the visual design of "Midpoint." The tabloid-like photographs -- at first annoyingly difficult to decipher -- are touchingly clear seen from a distance in time and space, like seed, like sand, like life, like art. "I cringe in the face of glory."

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