What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, November 13, 2015

In Praise of John Updike's Poetry (Contra Dan Chiasson)

John Updike (Photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

I’m not sure Dan Chiasson’s "Boston Boys" (The New Yorker, November 2, 2015) does full justice to John Updike’s poetry. Yes, it strongly recommends the new Selected Poems (“a book that anybody who loves Updike, or poetry, or Cape Ann—or, for that matter, golf or sex—should read”). And yes, it calls “Endpoint” “a perfect sonnet sequence.” But it also says things like, “The problem is that all of his poems about strain, discomfort, and regret cheer him, and we don’t associate cheer with great poetry,” and “Updike’s poems level our intrinsic ranking of occasions,” and “Vocabulary is the most overrated element of good writing, or so these poems tempt us to conclude.”

These are questionable criticisms. The claim that “all of his poems about strain, discomfort, and regret cheer him” is easily disproved. Take, for example, his superb "Peggy Lutz, Fred Muth" (The New Yorker, March 16, 2009), in which he pays tribute to his hometown of Shillington (“all a writer needs, / all there in Shillington, its trolley cars / and little factories, cornfields and trees, / leaf fires, snowflakes, pumpkins, valentines”), and concludes, “I had to move / to beautiful New England—its triple / deckers, whited churches, unplowed streets— / to learn how drear and deadly life can be.” I don’t detect any cheer there. In his great “Perfection Wasted” (The New Yorker, May 7, 1990), he contemplates death:

And another regrettable thing about death
is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,
which took a whole life to develop and market—
the quips, the witticisms, the slant
adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest
the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched
in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,
their tears confused with their diamond earrings,
their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,
their response and your performance twinned.
The jokes over the phone. The memories packed
in the rapid-access file. The whole act.
Who will do it again? That’s it: no one;
imitators and descendants aren’t the same.

No cheer there, either. See also the recently published "Coming Into New York" (The New Yorker, October 5, 2015), in which Updike travels to New York City, likening his arrival to an encounter with death:

After Providence, Connecticut—
the green defiant landscape, unrelieved
except by ordered cities, smart and smug,
in spirit villages, too full of life
to be so called, too small to seem sincere.
And then like Death it comes upon us:
the plain of steaming trash, the tinge of brown
that colors now the trees and grass as though
exposed to rays sent from the core of heat—
these are the signs we see in retrospect.
But we look up amazed and wonder that
the green is gone out of our window, that
horizon on all sides is segmented
into so many tiny lines that we
mistake it for the profile of a wooded
hill against the sky, or that as far
as mind can go are buildings, paving, streets.
The tall ones rise into the mist like gods
serene and watchful, yet we fear, for we
have witnessed from this train the struggle to
complexity: the leaf has turned to stone.

Several other examples could be cited, but these three are sufficient to show that Chiasson’s view (“all of his poems about strain, discomfort, and regret cheer him”) is mistaken.

With respect to Chiasson’s argument that Updike’s poems “level our intrinsic ranking of occasion,” it seems to miss Updike’s point, which is that almost anything can be the subject of poetry, including bowel movements, earthworms, and telephone poles, if the poet’s aim is, in Updike’s famous words, “to give the mundane its beautiful due.”  In his piece, Chiasson says, “ ‘The Beautiful Bowel Movement’ and ‘Fellatio’ and ‘Rats’ and the Phi Beta Kappa poem, ‘Apologies to Harvard,’ are not so different from one another, while bowel movements, fellatio, rats, and Harvard in fact are.” Well, yes, of course, they are. But, as Updike shows, they’re all equally worthy as poetry subjects. Chiasson’s argument against “leveling” flies in the face of the great Whitmanesque project of cataloguing the open fields of American experience in which, as Updike observed, in his essay “Whitman’s Egotheism,” “An ideal equality is extended not only to persons but to things as well.”

Chiasson’s most serious criticism of Updike’s poetry is that its vocabulary is “overrated.” He says,

Everywhere, the ingenious adjective turns up to alter its noun, where “adjective” stands for the imagination and “noun” for reality prior to aesthetic transformation. This formula is so consistent as to render its local applications interchangeable. An “unchurched grandma” in a “foursquare house” might as well be a foursquare grandma in an unchurched house. The verbs all seem chosen from a list written in marker on a cinder-block wall, or taken from a word-of-the-day calendar. Vocabulary is the most overrated element of good writing, or so these poems tempt us to conclude.

In this passage, the word “formula” jumps out. Chiasson uses it again, in the next paragraph, when he says, “Updike loved writing so much that he couldn’t help himself from doing it whenever possible. The poems do not slow, or substantially darken, when he learns of his terminal illness, but the formula has a new urgency and poignancy.” To my knowledge, this is the first time Updike has been accused of formulaic writing. The charge takes my breath away. I will attempt to refute it by referring to the diction in three of my favorite Updike poems – the above-quoted “Perfection Wasted,” “Bird Caught in My Deer Netting” (in Endpoint and Other Poems, 2009), and “Bindweed” (The New Yorker, August 26, 1991).

“Perfection Wasted” contains seventeen unmodified nouns: death, magic, quips, witticisms, slant, lip, stage, laughter, tears, heartbeat, response, performance, joke, phone, memories, imitators, descendants. Chiasson alleges, “Everywhere, the ingenious adjective turns up to alter its noun.” Where are they? Well, in “Perfection Wasted,” there are nine nouns modified by adjectives: regrettable thing, whole life, loved ones, soft faces, footlight glow, diamond earrings, warm pooled breath, rapid-access file, whole act. I submit that none of the aforesaid adjectives fall in the category of “ingenious”; they’re all plain, basic words. Let’s look at the verbs and gerunds. There are five of them: is, ceasing, took, do, aren’t. And there are five used as adjectives: adjusted, blanched, confused, twinned, packed. Do these verbs “seem chosen from a list written in marker on a cinder-block wall, or taken from a word-of-the-day calendar”? Most of them are just simple ordinary words – certainly not word-of-the-day calendar material.

Let’s look at the marvelous “Bird Caught in My Deer Netting.” It reads as follows:

The hedge must have seemed as ever,
seeds and yew berries secreted beneath,
small edible matter only a bird’s eye could see,
mixed with the brown of shed needles and earth—
a safe quiet cave such as nature affords the meek,
entered low, on foot, the feathered head
alert to what it sought, bright eyes darting
everywhere but above, where net had been laid.
Then, at some moment mercifully unwitnessed,
an attempt to rise higher, to fly,
met by an all but invisible limit, beating wings
pinioned, ground instinct denied. The panicky
thrashing and flutter, in daylight and air,
their freedom impossibly close, all about!
How many starved hours of struggle resumed
in fits of life’s irritation did it take
to seal and sew shut the berry-bright eyes
and untie the tiny wild knot of a heart?
I cannot know, discovering this wad
of junco-fluff, weightless and wordless
in its corner of netting deer cannot chew through
nor gravity-defying bird bones break.

This poem contains sixteen unmodified nouns (hedge, seeds, yew berries, earth, nature, net, attempt, daylight, air, freedom, fits, heart, wad, junco-fluff, corner, deer), fourteen modified nouns (small edible matter, bird’s eye, shed needles, safe quiet cave, feathered head, bright eyes, invisible limit, beating wings, ground instinct, starved hours, life’s irritation, berry-bright eyes, tiny wild knot, gravity-defying bird bones), and seventeen verbs and gerunds (seemed, secreted, see, mixed, affords, entered, sought, darting, met, resumed, take, seal, sew, untie, cannot, discovering, break). Again, I don’t see any evidence of the alleged formula. The majority of the nouns are unmodified; where there is modification, the adjectives used are hardly what I’d call “ingenious.” The verbs are mostly ordinary.

One more example – the wonderful “Bindweed”:

Intelligence is sometimes a help.
The bindweed doesn’t know
when it begins to climb a wand of grass
that this is no tree and will bend
its flourishing dependent back to earth.
But bindweed has a trick: self-
stiffening, entwining two- or three-ply,
to boost itself up, into the lilacs.
Without much forethought it manages
to imitate the lilac leaves and lose
itself to all but the avidest clippers.
To spy it out, to clip near the root
and unwind the climbing tight spiral
with a motion the reverse of its own
feels like treachery – death to a plotter
whose intelligence mirrors ours, twist for twist.

It has sixteen unmodified nouns (intelligence, help, bindweed, wand, grass, tree, earth, trick, lilacs, forethought, root, motion, treachery, death, plotter, twist), four modified nouns (flourishing dependent, lilac leaves, avidest clippers, climbing tight spiral), and seventeen verbs and gerunds (is, doesn’t, know, begins, climbs, bend, has, entwining, boost, manages, imitate, lose, spy, clip, unwind, feels, mirrors). Looking at “Bindweed,” I don’t see the formula that Chiasson speaks of. In fact, I would go so far as to say that transformation is not what Updike was trying to achieve in his poetry. Descriptive accuracy was his aim. Clive James, in his excellent "Final Act" (The New York Times Sunday Book Review, April 28, 2009), a review of Updike’s Endpoint and Other Poems, says, “But from the thematic angle there is a strict discipline in operation. Every recollection has to be specific.” Chiasson makes this point, too, I think, when he says, in his piece, that he remembers reading the “Endpoint” poems in The New Yorker and “marveling at their authenticity.” By “authenticity” I think he means realness – the thing itself. That’s the quality in Updike’s poetry that I treasure.

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