Saturday, 31 January 2009

John Updike, Seventy Poems (1972)

Updike updead. I’m still digesting this unpleasant news. This is what I said in another place:

For a man who was so consummate and brilliant a prose stylist, with such an eye for detail and such a facility with arresting and Keatsian description, I’m kind of relieved that his poetry sucks as much as it does. I’m relieved because whilst I can do prose I can’t seem to write good poetry either, and it’s heartening to think I’m not alone.
On the subject of his brilliance as a prose writer, you might, if you had time and inclination, read this. But Seventy Poems reinforces in me the sense that what he could do marvellously in prose he couldn’t do at all in verse. This is his account of sunshine on a sandstone building:

Golden photon white on granulated red
.....makes brown,
wall-broad in this instance,
splendiferous surface. [86]
That’s almost wholly unevocative, don't you think? Maybe it’s an example of his jokey inhabitations of clunky-kercuhnky old style (here’s his 4-line OE pastiche ‘Winter Ocean’: ‘many-maned scud-thumper, tub/of make whales, maker of worn wood, shrub-/ruster sky-mocker, rave!/portly pusher of waves, wind-slave.’) Sometimes he’s clearly trying for the funny. He doesn’t hit the spot, but you can see he’s trying:

Why marry ogre
Just to get hubby?
Has he a brogue, or
Are his legs stubby?

Smokes he a stogie?
Is he not sober?
Is he too logy
And dull as a crowbar?
But sometimes he really absolutely very-much actually seems to be channelling McGonagall. Here’s the first stanza of ‘Hoeing’:

I sometimes fear the younger generation will be deprived of the pleasures of hoeing;
there is no knowing
how many souls have been formed by this simple exercise.
The characteristic Updike poetic voice is pastiche, and being deliberately so doesn’t inoculate the verse against stiffness. Here’s an erotic epigram that Updike probably wrote in adult life, but which seems (again, perhaps deliberately so) to have been written by a bookish, intense thirteen year old:

Hoping to fashion a mirror, the lover
doth polish the face of his beloved
until he produces a skull.

Pretentious, that. Some of the poems are not bad, although I appreciate I’m giving a rather other impression with this sample. But I want to deal with one complete poem that rather stands out—not because it is bad poetry, because actually it’s not; but because there’s an ick-factor, a ‘he-didn’t-just-say-what-I-think-he-did,-did-he?’ quality, that is also of course very recognisable from Updike's prose.

It is beautiful to think
that each of these clean secretaries
at night, to please her lover, takes
a fountain into her mouth
and lets her insides, drenched in seed,
flower into landscapes:
meadows sprinkled with baby’s breath,
hoarse twiggy woods, birds dipping, a multitude
of skies containing clouds, plowed earth stinking
of its upturned humus, and small farms each
with a silver silo.
It is hard to get past the initial ‘hey!’ to be able to appreciate the extent to which this pastoral worldbuilding inside the stomach of a woman is striking, and strikingly rendered. But yes: secretaries. A: What are they for? Remind me. J: Blow-jobs, that’s what. A: Not for, you know, typing and such? J: Not so much. Mostly it’s the blow-jobs. The clean ones at any rate. A: And the unclean ones? J: I guess they could, eh, do a little light paperwork. A: OK. So, in sum: you see some secretaries, and find yourself thinking: I bet they swallow when they give head: I bet their insides are fair drenched! J: Sure. Don’t you? A: Well, no, actually. And you don’t think those thoughts are a bit … J: Beautiful? Yes I do. A: That wasn’t what I was going to say, actually. J: [dreamily] Beautiful thoughts! Beautiful!

But OK, we can play the game. The point of the poem, I suppose, is that fellatio is contraceptive, where vaginal sex can lead to making babies. So his poem turns, phantasmagorically, the dead-end into a new landscape in which his seed can sprout; the Pennsylvania farmland landscape of Updike’s own youth. It’s not about the secretaries’ insides at all. It’s a poem saying ‘isn’t it nice having your cock sucked?’, which is to say, it’s a poem whose implicit audience is male. ‘Having my cock sucked turns me into a fountain! It takes me back to the world of my youth! It’s all rain-damp woodland and dinky-little farms!’ To which the best response is: well, isn’t that nice for you.

1 comment:

DrRoy said...

That's a consummate (rather than consummating) discussion of a crazily self-indulgent poem. Can I add a footnote on 'baby's breath'? Gypsophila has apparently gone native in the Eastern states of the USA. Can't say I care for its smell myself. But its presence certain reinforces your point about oral sex as not producing babies, but vegetation.