A RESCUE.

I’m sure you all know by now that John Updike has died; I grew impatient in recent years with his ubiquitous, endlessly fluent and charming reviews and essays that said nothing much in particular, but at his best he was a superb writer of novels and short stories, and quite a decent poet as well. Here’s a poem from Americana:

        A Rescue
Today I wrote some words that will see print.
Maybe they will last “forever” in that
someone will read them, their ink making
a light scratch on his mind, or hers.
I think back with greater satisfaction
upon a yellow bird—a goldfinch?—
that had flown into the garden shed
and could not get out,
battering its wings on the deceptive light
of the dusty, warped-shut window.
Without much reflection for once, I stepped
to where its panicked heart
was making commotion, the flared wings drumming,
and with clumsy soft hands
pinned it against a pane, held loosely cupped
this agitated essence of the air,
and through the open door released it,
like a self-flung ball,
to all that lovely, perishing outdoors.

(Thanks, Eric!)

Comments

  1. He was a true Red Sox fan. What higher praise can one offer?
    I wonder what his legacy will be? I get the impression he is not widely read or admired by people under the age of 45, as far as I can tell. A lot of us subscribed to David Foster Wallace’s description of him as a “Great Male Narcissist” (but DFW was very unfair to Roth, whom I think a lot of people of my generation love), and reading Updike on sex is kind of like listening to your father recount his sexual exploits – more embarrassing than titillating. But I suppose by this point he’s become assigned reading in University courses – people in their 20s are probably more versed in Updike than people of my generation, and probably less Boomer averse.

  2. When do we leave the “speak no evil about the dead” period?

  3. When do we leave the “speak no evil about the dead” period?

  4. From the NYT obit:

    His standing within the literary community may never have been greater than in 2006 when he delivered a passionate defense of bookstores and words, words on paper, at publishing’s annual national convention. Responding to a recent New York Times essay predicting a digital future, he scorned this ”pretty grisly scenario” and praised the paper book as the site of an ”encounter, in silence, of two minds.”
    ”So, booksellers, defend your lonely forts,” he concluded.

  5. This should have been called “On Not Knowing The Names Of Birds”.

  6. (the poem, that is, not the post)

  7. A.J.P. Crown says:

    My daughter and I rescued a mouse, uninjured in one of my wife’s mousetraps, yesterday. We let it out in the three feet of snow by the garbage can with some birdseed, a plastic bag and a blanket. It’s really confusing for the mice, they don’t know who to trust. Thanks, Language and John Cowan. You learn the names of trees to know about trees, not about literature. Trees are part of life, if you’re lucky. You lot who live in the towns don’t know what you’re missing. Not that it’s confined to the countryside, but I do hate finding mouse shit in the house, though.

  8. I read it as ‘buttering its wings on…’ at first. That would have been better. Also if he’d killed the bird.
    Still, you can’t please all the people all the time, and you can’t please me any of the time.

  9. The city has plenty of mice. The trick is to have a cat in the house in the autumn when all the outdoor mice are looking for a gig for the winter. We had a cat get into the basement and produce a litter of kittens; all summer odd noises would come up through the heating system ductwork, but I just smiled, knowing there would be no mice. There is actually quite a bit of wildlife in the city. Our garbage cans have to be rat-resistant, and occasionally we have raccoons and possums from the nearby forest preserves, oh, and snakes. Heaven help you if you get a coon nesting in your attic though–they’re nocturnal. I suppose that should really be “racoon”, if you want to be politically correct. No skunks though, that’s strictly rural.

  10. Something tells me Kron’s mouse will be spending the night indoors.

  11. I know someone who’s a great Updike fan, and the only birds he knows by name are those with football teams named after them, for whatever that’s worth.
    Updike obviously hated trees, otherwise why the insistence on making books out of them? I love books and their sensuality is a source of delight, but I have never understood the argument that minds cannot encounter each other just as truly via a digital delivery mechanism.
    The bird’s name gives us access to the whole natural history of the bird: its feeding habits and migratory patterns and preferred trees for nest-building and its evolution, without having to do the field research ourselves. To not know the names of birds or trees or constellations seems a strange thing – to be like Jo in Bleak House surrounded by a world of signs he cannot read.
    But then I can’t read Russian, something I am reminded of quite regularly when I read this blog, so who am I to judge? (I think you have a wonderful blog and a delightful community of commenters here, so I thought it was time to de-lurk and thank you all for giving me a great deal of reading pleasure over the last several months.)

  12. According to AC Graham, Chinese poetry knows two basic trees: bushy-top trees and pointy-top trees. I’m not sure he’s right, but a lot of tree names are classical allusions that are impossible to pin down.

  13. According to AC Graham, Chinese poetry knows two basic trees: bushy-top trees and pointy-top trees. I’m not sure he’s right, but a lot of tree names are classical allusions that are impossible to pin down.

  14. Your A. C. Graham has been reading too much Borges. The only writer I ever heard William Meredith disparage with a sense of personal injury was Updike. It apparently had something to do with trying to muscle in on his Bulgarian cultural exchange projects. I have enjoyed the latter’s Hugging the Shore, nonetheless, just because I am pleased to know that he read a few things from the tradition and had a thought or two. His fiction has never managed to “transport” me for more than a few pages, at which point I sat it aside.

  15. ??

  16. ??

  17. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Something tells me Kron’s mouse will be spending the night indoors.
    There are some living with the goats and another group spent last autumn in the car engine. They left a neat pile of cherry stones on top of the engine filter. Sometimes I feel like I’m Beatrix Potter.

  18. John Emerson: in matters of tree nomenclature, clearly the British Army is a little more advanced than Chinese poets, if Henry Reed is an accurate guide:
    “There are three kinds of tree, three only, the fir and the poplar,
    And those which have bushy tops to”

  19. J. Del Col says:

    Didn’t Updike write the Lagomorph series, you know–
    Lagomorph Lope
    Lagomorph Lagomorph
    Lagomorph is Loaded
    Lagomorph at Leisure?

  20. OK, the body is cold. I liked Updike’s early works when I was young, partly because the small town theme was familiar to me, but going back to “Pigeon Feathers” just recently I felt that it was horribly overwritten. With “Rabbit, Run”, even then I had trouble rousing any interest in the mediocre, mildly corrupt protagonist. Updike’s attempt to elevate his themes via stylistic virtuosity grated on me in that book, and seemingly that’s all he ever did.
    Around 1960-1964 I read a book or two by each of the then-major American novelists, and I only liked Ralph Ellison and Philip Roth. It’s a pity I didn’t read more broadly, but as it was these authors (Bellow, Mailer, Updike, Styron, Capote, and some others) cured me of my desire to write fiction.
    Now I’m a classicist and hardly ever read anything written during my lifetime except non-fiction.

  21. OK, the body is cold. I liked Updike’s early works when I was young, partly because the small town theme was familiar to me, but going back to “Pigeon Feathers” just recently I felt that it was horribly overwritten. With “Rabbit, Run”, even then I had trouble rousing any interest in the mediocre, mildly corrupt protagonist. Updike’s attempt to elevate his themes via stylistic virtuosity grated on me in that book, and seemingly that’s all he ever did.
    Around 1960-1964 I read a book or two by each of the then-major American novelists, and I only liked Ralph Ellison and Philip Roth. It’s a pity I didn’t read more broadly, but as it was these authors (Bellow, Mailer, Updike, Styron, Capote, and some others) cured me of my desire to write fiction.
    Now I’m a classicist and hardly ever read anything written during my lifetime except non-fiction.

  22. A.J.P. Crown says:

    cured me of my desire to write fiction.
    There’s no need to make it sound like a disease. You might have had fun; been good at it, even.
    Now I’m a classicist and hardly ever read anything written during my lifetime except non-fiction.
    It’s never too late…
    I like Phil Roth & Saul Bellow of those on your list.

  23. I recently reread (some of) Rabbit, Run, and this is still my favorite scene (“he” is Rabbit, “she” the Reverend Eccles’s wife):
    “…in a mindless follow-through, an overflow of coordination, she having on the drop of his answer turned with prim dismissal away from him again, slaps! her sassy ass. Not hard: a cupping hit, rebuke and fond pat both, well-placed on the pocket.
    She swiftly pivots, swinging her backside to safety behind her. Her freckles dart sharp as pinpricks from her shocked face. Her leaping blood bleaches her skin, and her rigidly cold stare is so incongruous with the lazy condescending warmth he feels toward her, that he pushes his upper lip over his lower in a burlesque expression of penitence.”

  24. And here’s John Banville reviewing Villages in the NY Review:
    “Here is Owen, the troubled but enraptured adulterer, in bed with his wife and thinking of his lover:
    When he lay down beside Phyllis to sleep, his head churned with bits of this other woman—the inner curves of the two shy, shallow breasts that a certain low-cut dress revealed; the glazed bold stare of her muddy-green irises when she’d had one drink too many; the nervous dampness of her hand when it touched his; the look her face acquired when excited and amused, of being all eyes and mouth, and then the wry crimp of the lips, clipping shut a smile.
    Facility? No one else I know of, simply no one, writes this well.”

  25. I think that we have here an unmistakable instance of widely differing tastes.

  26. I think that we have here an unmistakable instance of widely differing tastes.

  27. Seems to me like the guy was trying to glamorize a spoiled brat. One can only read so much of an amoral character with no depth before wondering what is the point of reading that and whether those minutes you spent reading it are ones that at the end of your life, you would like to have back.
    Styron I have never heard of, the others spark no interest at all. There must have been some interesting non-fiction writer in the last 100 years.

  28. I was glad to read this poem, and one other that someone posted on the occasion of his death: the only things of Updike’s I have come to the end of and thought, “that was worth the time it took to read it.”
    One of those literary figures who loom large in their own generation and vanish without a trace during the next, I think. “Life can be tedious” is true enough, but that doesn’t mean literature should be.

  29. emmaeck: But then I can’t read Russian, something I am reminded of quite regularly when I read this blog
    LH needs a series of brief Russian lessons for those of us who are convinced we spoke Russian in another incarnation. Something painless like “this post has been brought to you by the letter [whatever the letters are]“. Just sayin’.
    I like emmaeck’s “Atheism: Sleep in on Sunday mornings” Ozzie bus slogan. Reminds me of the pious Moslem saying about the dawn prayers: “prayer is better than sleep” which I always twisted around–although staying with a pious family during Ramadan and getting up before dawn for the big breakfast, then napping for an hour before work is worth experiencing at least once.

  30. I think that we have here an unmistakable instance of widely differing tastes.
    Oh, he’s hardly one of my favorite’s; I nearly threw “Terrorist” across the room after a hundred pages. But I do think his prose can be amazingly good.
    Overall, you’re probably right about differing tastes. I love a lot of contemporary literature and poetry.
    One can only read so much of an amoral character with no depth before wondering what is the point of reading that
    No depth, of course.

  31. John Emerson: ??.
    Either all of the translations I have read from classical Chinese writers are enormously interpretive or they indicate that those writers had a wide and detailed knowledge of the trees of China. Graham, on the other hand, seems to be borrowing the idea of Borges’s “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” and taking it for a playful spin rather than making a valid point.

  32. I’m going to look it up. Graham’s point as I remember was mostly just that you wouldn’t, for example, to tell where someone was by the specific trees, that is to say that it wasn’t observant nature poetry where you could tell what kind of forest it was. And then, a lot of trees had symbolic meanings and literary references dating back 1000+ years, the way live oaks would mean Whitman and yew would mean Robin Hood.
    But now I have to find the box and dig out the book.

  33. I’m going to look it up. Graham’s point as I remember was mostly just that you wouldn’t, for example, to tell where someone was by the specific trees, that is to say that it wasn’t observant nature poetry where you could tell what kind of forest it was. And then, a lot of trees had symbolic meanings and literary references dating back 1000+ years, the way live oaks would mean Whitman and yew would mean Robin Hood.
    But now I have to find the box and dig out the book.

  34. No depth, of course.
    and chastity is its own reward.

  35. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Not everything has to be a symbol, sometimes a tree is just a tree (and, for me, a lot more interesting in itself than Whitman or Robin Hood will ever be). Take that, Emerson.

  36. Thank you John Emerson for saying what I couldn’t be bothered to. God rest his soul but he was pretentious, provincial and unutterably dull, and clearly believed his tedious descriptions of nothing very much were in some way ‘important.’ There are writers who can describe paint drying and there are those who cannot. Having said that, I’ve never tried out the poetry. Should I give it a whirl?

  37. Thank you John Emerson for saying what I couldn’t be bothered to.
    Don’t worry, LOTS of people have said it and will go on saying it. Here:
    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v23/n08/wood02_.html
    http://www.badgerinternet.com/~bobkat/observer1.html
    And on the poetry (which I’m not crazy about myself):
    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v16/n06/wood02_.html
    http://harpers.org/archive/2007/12/0081837
    The last, by Wyatt Mason in Harper’s, is more about Updike’s criticism actually, but it does include this:
    “Some readers, however, have grown suspicious of Updike the rainmaker—dismissing out of hand the possibility that quality could obtain in the face of such unlikely quantity. Updike’s productivity, particularly the unevenness of his fictional output as time wears on—Seek My Face no Of the Farm; Villages no Couples; Terrorist no Rabbit, Run—courts doubt over his powers of discrimination. Consider the following sonnet of Updike’s, published in the first issue of The Oxford American and composed on the eve of Valentine’s Day, 1989:
    ‘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.’
    Milan Kundera defines kitsch as “the absolute denial of shit,” and we might be inclined to worry over Updike’s wholesale acceptance of same. Reading this poem, “The Beautiful Bowel Movement,” one wants very much to believe that with each artistic choice—the sudden parenthetical shift into the incongruously pastoral “prairie stretch”; the rhyming of “release” with “masterpiece”; the pun in “as if a potter”; the closing couplet’s “O” through which the poem’s final feet run—Updike himself released a roar of compositional laughter. One is not, however, so sure. Updike’s unusual talent for what he termed the “lyric glimpse” can draw the lighthouse beam of his attention too readily to the illumination of meaningless detail, to the making of one too many attempts, as he said in 1965, “to freeze the flux of life into the icy permanence of print.” When David Remnick dismisses, fairly, those who dismiss Updike as “a preternaturally skillful writer of surfaces,” one shouldn’t ignore the evidence that Updike is unfailingly an artist of the visible, an adherent to William Carlos Williams’s injunction, “no ideas but in things.” That Updike seems hard-pressed to discriminate, at times, between the telling thing and the telling of everything suggests a strength that becomes a weakness.”

  38. he was pretentious, provincial and unutterably dull
    Pretentious, sometimes. Provincial, no, that’s not fair: he tried many times to write out of his comfort zone (i.e. New England and Pennsylvania), he just failed a lot. Dull, yes, often, unfortunately: growing up he had “a love affair” with The New Yorker — he admired the take-it-or-leave-it attitude of their fiction — and, reading him, you do wish he cared a little more about his readers. Still, talent can be thrilling on its own, and (I’ll say it again) he was amazingly talented.
    clearly believed his tedious descriptions of nothing very much were in some way ‘important.’
    Well, to that I can only answer with a poem by Charles Wright (one which I’ve already pasted in an LH thread, to no response, but fuck it, I like it and it’s apt):
    Homage to What’s-His-Name
    Ah, description, of all the arts the least appreciated.
    Well, it’s just this and it’s just that,
    someone will point out.
    Exactly. It’s just this and it’s just that and nothing other.
    From landscape to unsuppressed conjunction, it’s only itself.
    No missteps, no misreading.
    And what’s more metaphysical than that,
    The world in its proper posture, on all fours, drinking the sweet water?

  39. No depth, of course.
    and chastity is its own reward.

    I didn’t mean that Updike of course had no depth; I meant (in response to your comment) that of course you can only read so much about a character with no depth. Morality is another a question.
    I don’t know what you mean about chastity.

  40. I like Phil Roth & Saul Bellow of those on your list.
    Me too. But Roth never lets me call him Phil. I wish I were the King of Mars.

  41. We all wish we were the king of Mars. It’s good to be the king, especially when they find water in your domain.

  42. A.J.P. Crown (Mrs) says:

    I call him Phil, he calls me ‘sir’.

  43. We all wish we were the king of Mars. It’s good to be the king, especially when they find water in your domain.
    I thought the latest discovery on Mars was of almighty farts
    (No offence meant, Your Martian Majesty …)

  44. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Hmm. Single-cell organisms. Do you think I can sell them?

  45. marie-lucie says:

    I call him Phil, he calls me ‘sir’.
    If you were speaking French, you might say tu to him, he would say vous.

  46. A.J.P. Crown says:

    That’s one system we won’t be recreating on Mars.

  47. Also just found this for those who think Updike was treated to well: http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2009-02-01/writing-off-updike-1/

  48. A.J.P. Crown says:

    That’s interesting that someone is defending Updike from all the negative stuff. I don’t think it’s a perfect defense; it’s more of an attack on his attackers than an appreciation of Updike’s work. Better than nothing, though. How come he didn’t say it when the man was still alive? Though I’m not a huge fan, I did quite enjoy the Rabbit books.

  49. I don’t think it’s a perfect defense
    No, it isn’t. I just enjoyed the sentiment.
    “Recently, the novelist Nicole Krauss offered a sharper judgment: For her, Updike was “an old fart” (an Updike admirer could be forgiven for imagining that Updike’s gastric occasions, such as they might have been, were veritable lieder compared to Krauss’s noxious adventures in Holocaust kitsch).”
    I’ll admit that made me laugh, but it was more than a little hypocritical the way he distances himself from the attack (“an Updike admirer…”) right after he called out David Foster Wallace for exactly the same thing: “’Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?’ David Foster Wallace nastily imagined readers “under 40” asking about Updike.”

  50. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Boy. Well spotted, Jamessal. You’re a clever bastard.

  51. Recently, Martian monarch AJP Crown offered a sharper judgment: For him, jamessal was “a clever bastard.”

  52. Thank you, Your Majesty. I do enjoy compliments, especially when they’re given in public. I would have thanked you for it earlier, but last night I was somewhere even stranger than Mars — a place you will be hearing about soon…

  53. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Not… New York???

  54. I fear so!

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