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, October 17, 2016

On John Updike's "Creeper"

John Updike (Photo by Michael O'Neill)

As a result of reading Katie Roiphe’s The Violet Hour, I find myself thinking about the meaning of John Updike’s “Creeper,” the ninth in a ten-poem sequence called “Endpoint” that originally appeared in the March 16, 2009, New Yorker. The poem figures centrally in Roiphe’s portrait of Updike’s death. She calls it “a lovely, wishful expression of an accepting stance toward dying, a new, late iteration of stoicism.” But it seems to me that “Creeper” expresses more than just acceptance of death. It appears to treat death as “good”:

With what stoic delicacy does
Virginia creeper let go:
the feeblest tug brings down
a sheaf of leaves kite-high,
as if to say, To live is good
but not to live—to be pulled down
with scarce a ripping sound,
still flourishing, still
stretching toward the sun—
is good also, all photosynthesis
abandoned, quite quits. Next spring
the hairy rootlets left unpulled
snake out a leafy afterlife
up that same smooth-barked oak.

I love the image of the Virginia creeper “letting go” as a symbol of death. It captures life’s fragility. But I balk at the idea that it is “good” to be pulled down – “all photosynthesis / abandoned, quite quits.” That is going beyond stoical acceptance. Yes, death is part of life. But it’s also an extinguishment of life. There’s nothing good about it.

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