“Requiem,” by John Updike

Selected for Immortal Muse by Zireaux (read Zireaux’s comments on this poem)

John Updike

It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
“Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise — depths unplumbable!”

Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
“I thought he died a while ago.”

For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.

John Updike in 2005

John Updike in 2005

Zireaux’s comments on this poem:
It’s fair to say — or no, it’s correct to say, it’s absolutely truthful to say — that John Updike was primarily a poet.

Even if Updike had never written his eight books of verse (including his posthumous Endpoint and Other Poems, from which the above sample is taken), I can’t see how any reader of Updike’s 21 novels, or his 15 short story collections, or his eight collections of essays and criticism, or his five children’s books, or his play, his memoir — or any of his hundreds of articles and reviews — how any reader of any one of these works could think otherwise.

“I thought he died a while ago.” Yes, they would say that. But they’d also say: “I never knew he wrote poetry.”

How can this be?

The best English novels — and I’m referring here to a very select group of wonders, by writers such as Joyce, Melville, Nabokov, Kipling, George Elliot and yes, Updike — are the fullest expressions of poetry achieved in the language. It’s much harder to think of a master novelist who was not a poet at heart — H.G. Wells, surprisingly, appears to have written nothing but a few lines of verse in Ann Veronica and some other forgotten story — than it is to recall a storyteller of significance who didn’t, at some early stage in life, discover and drink the magic potion of poetry (key ingredient on its label: lyrical metaphor) before setting off on a journey to some Novelayan peak.

At the refined establishment of prose, however, the poet is instructed to remove both wings and hat upon entering the premises; and once inside, our poor sylph is plied with cheap beer and two-dollar cocktails until passing out cold in a bathroom stall with mass-market graffiti on the walls.

A much admired critic, friend and voracious reader once described a small post of mine about a poetic delight in Melville’s Moby Dick with the teaser: “Zireaux explains why he believes Herman Melville is a poet” — as if Melville’s poetic credentials were debatable, or required some explanation. Regardless of whether Moby Dick, the novel, is a work of poetry (it is, of course), one fact can’t be disputed: Melville himself, like Updike, was indeed a poet. Melville wrote many great poems, including an epic poem called Clarabel: A Poem and Pilgrimage to the Holy Land (1876), which he considered one of his few masterworks.

Requiem begins with a nice little joke — the idea that Updike’s literary weight problem only came to him “the other day,” so near to his death. Surely he had more than a mirror to measure his girth, the corpulence of his corpus so to speak. As I mentioned in a review of his Essays and Criticism, Updike was quite able to stand naked on the bathroom scale, and he fully understood the tastes of posterity: It “tends to give novelists a longer ride on one or two big books,” he wrote, thinking of Proust, “than on a raft of smaller ones.”

If anyone could be untroubled by his ever-widening output, it’s Updike, always letting himself go. Whereas most poets fear the shabby and the shallow, or create their own imagined depths, Updike embraced the puerile and the trashy. He found his beauty less in the magnum, less in the monumental, than in the fatty excess of commercial Americana: the candy-bar wrapper discarded on the broken macadam; the contents of suburban refrigerators and closets; a boyish passion for cars; the darkest details of marriage and divorce. Life is “shabby,” he writes, and “death is real, and dark, and huge” — such perfect commas, the pauses of a profound admission.

Even if the raft on which Updike floats is composed with just a few tree-trunk novels, and the rest with branches and twigs, and girlie magazines, microwave popcorn, discarded condoms, and (rummaging through his story, “Learn a Trade”) driftwood sculptures, refrigerator magnets, collages of beach-glass, deflated footballs, cardboard circuses, gadgets whose batteries have given out — it’s still a barge of beauty, magnificent and colorful; and it is his poetry that twines it all together; his poetry that will give this great American bard a very long ride.

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4 Responses to “Requiem,” by John Updike

  1. A J

    Nice, a morbid topic of great weight approached with such good humour.

  2. Jennifer Compton

    great stuff – big fan of updike, his poetry, essays, criticism, short stories – everything except his novels really

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