Of course, when reviewing anthologies, one is implicitly engaged in two reviews; one of what has been anthologized, and one of the editor. This selection of Updike’s poems was culled by Christopher Carduff and he is not simply one of the legions of Updike fans. A contributing editor at The Library of America since 2006, Christopher Carduff is also the estate-appointed editor of John Updike’s posthumous publications. In 2013, Carduff edited a two-volume set of Updike’s Collected Stories that he prepared for LOA.
As prolific as Updike was (he published more than twenty novels and more than a dozen short story collections), such collections are invaluable to those wanting introductions to Updike’s oeuvre. As for Updike’s poetry, one can turn to Updike’s own anthologies: Collected Poems: 1953-1993, Endpoint and Other Poems, and Americana and Other Poems. The effort, both temporal and financial, would certainly not be unduly burdensome in simply acquiring the three Updike volumes.
Whether absorbed from Updike’s volumes or Carduff’s culled selection, Updike’s poetry has always been worth the effort, if nothing else than for its contextual idiosyncrasy. Since his emergence in the 1950s from Pennsylvania, Updike has been an important American writer. Yet, over the final decade of his life (d. 2009), Updike’s reputation slipped, with critics indicting his work as old fashioned, misogynistic, and narcissistic. He has also been described as infatuated with his own style, that he over-described everything to no purpose, and that he was incredibly self-absorbed.
Updike transformed much of his life into prose or verse, which he then tried to get into print somewhere – ultimately in a book. He believed in the creative-writing-class imperative to write what you know. “An imitation of the life we know, however narrow, is our only ground,” he said. Indeed, especially early in his career, Updike simply had trouble describing people and things that he had never seen. One of the few projects that failed to pan out for him was a novel about James Buchanan, our fifteenth and arguably worst President, for whom Updike nourished a perverse respect. He found that he couldn’t manage what he called the “vigorous fakery” of historical fiction. But in the world around him and inside his own head there was very little that he couldn’t spin into a rich and intricate verbal fabric. Being self-centered, then, is less a choice than a literary imperative for Updike.
Updike could be surprisingly formally ambitious, even experimental, with his poetry. The problem for some is that his poems about strain, discomfort, and regret cheer him, and many do not generally associate cheer with “great” poetry. The poems often feel like the by-products of the happy diversion they provided their author while he was writing them, an effect most striking when it seems least intended. “Midpoint” is his autobiographical poem of Whitmanesque capaciousness, weaving quotations from Whitman into a fabric made of heterodox elements – typographical spasms and grainy photographs.
This criticism, whether valid or not, must place Updike in the context of the times and places. Updike grew up in Pennsylvania and spent much of his life in Boston. At the time, New York poets ran a thriving mid-century avant-garde, led by Frank O’Hara; San Francisco had the Beats. Updike did spend time in New York, writing for the New Yorker, yet he considered his time in New York to be one of the great “interruptions” in his life.
Updike believed that people in the world sought happiness and that, contrary to the representations of novelists like John Cheever and Jack Kerouac, they often found it. Updike famously described his own style as an attempt “to give the mundane its beautiful due.”
Commenting on his own writing, Nebraska poet Ted Kooser expressed a similar vocation: “I write for other people with the hope that I can help them to see the wonderful things within their everyday experiences. In short, I want to show people how interesting the ordinary world can be if you pay attention.”
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