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.

Monday, January 11, 2016

On Jonathan Galassi's "Updike's Violin"

Jonathan Galassi, in his absorbing “Updike’s Violin” (The New York Review of Books, December 17, 2015), criticizes John Updike’s poetry for failing to be transformative. Galassi says, “He sees, he denotes, but he does not transform. His observations nearly always remain the beginning and the end of his writing in verse.” I agree that Updike’s poems, particularly the brilliant ten-poem sequence, “Endpoint,” that appeared in the March 16, 2009 New Yorker, aren’t transformative. That’s exactly why I treasure them. They are poems of untransformed reality. For example, consider "Fred Muth, Peggy Lutz," the seventh poem in the “Endpoint” sequence:

December 13, 2008
They’ve been in my fiction; both now dead,
Peggy just recently, long stricken (like
my Grandma) with Parkinson’s disease.
But what a peppy knockout Peggy was!—
cheerleader, hockey star, May Queen, RN.
Pigtailed in kindergarten, she caught my mother’s
eye, but she was too much girl for me.
Fred—so bright, so quietly wry—his
mother’s eye fell on me, a “nicer” boy
than her son’s pet pals. Fred’s slight wild streak
was tamed by diabetes. At the end,
it took his toes and feet. Last time we met,
his walk rolled wildly, fetching my coat. With health
he might have soared. As was, he taught me smarts.
Dear friends of childhood, classmates, thank you,
scant hundred of you, for providing a
sufficiency of human types: beauty,
bully, hanger-on, natural,
twin, and fatso—all a writer needs,
all there in Shillington, its trolley cars
and little factories, cornfields and trees,
leaf fires, snowflakes, pumpkins, valentines.
To think of you brings tears less caustic
than those the thought of death brings. Perhaps
we meet our heaven at the start and not
the end of life. Even then were tears
and fear and struggle, but the town itself
draped in plain glory the passing days.
The town forgave me for existing; it
included me in Christmas carols, songfests
(though I sang poorly) at the Shillington,
the local movie house. My father stood,
in back, too restless to sit, but everybody
knew his name, and mine. In turn I knew
my Granddad in the overalled town crew.
I’ve written these before, these modest facts,
but their meaning has no bottom in my mind.
The fragments in their jiggled scope collide
to form more sacred windows. I had to move
to beautiful New England—its triple
deckers, whited churches, unplowed streets—
to learn how drear and deadly life can be.

That “The town forgave me for existing” gets to me every time I read it. The poem is an exceptionally beautiful, heartfelt tribute to Updike’s hometown of Shillington. The reference to “these modest facts” reminds me of Lowell’s “poor passing facts” in his great “Epilogue.” Galassi is right when he says the “Endpoint” poems “recall Robert Lowell’s work of the late 1960s and 1970s.” Reviewing Lowell’s Day by Day (1977), Helen Vendler said, “Accuracy and fidelity to perception have rarely received such a desperate pledge of faith” (Part of Nature, Part of Us). 

Accuracy and fidelity to perception – these, it seems to me, are the hallmarks of Updike’s late style, as expressed in his magnificent “Endpoint” poems – poems that do not alter, dramatize, fictionalize, or otherwise transform the world, but strive to show it exactly as he sees it.

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