I was so keen yesterday to slip Phyllis McGinley’s January admonition into the very last Poetry Friday of the month that it didn’t even occur to me to give the late John Updike his due as poet, let alone light versifier; the poet Robert Wallace once called his friend “clearly the preëminent American light-verser of our generation”. I was reminded of the fact by Karen Edmisten and her timely post and by some offblog emails that had us chatting about his writings in The New Yorker.
Most obituaries this week mentioned that Mr. Updike’s first published work was light verse, in The New Yorker. In his preface to Collected Poems, 1953-1993 where he admitted, “As a boy I wanted to be a cartoonist”, Mr, Updike called his writing style “cartooning with words”. In his appreciation the other day, David Lipsky in Salon wrote, “Updike broke into print with light verse, just as the world decided that funny, rhyming poetry was something it could possibly do without.” Mr. Updike himself said in Due Considerations that “Up to 1960, I had made my living selling short stores and light verse, for which there was a significant but fickle and possibly fading market.”
Well, not the whole world. So here are a few. First, “Cosmic Gall”, originally published in Telephone Poems and Other Poems in 1960 and included years later as part of the illustrated presentation for the 1995 Nobel Prize in Physics.
by John Updike
Neutrinos they are very small.
They have no charge and have no mass
And do not interact at all.
The earth is just a silly ball
To them, through which they simply pass,
Like dustmaids down a drafty hall
Or photons through a sheet of glass.
They snub the most exquisite gas,
Ignore the most substantial wall,
Cold-shoulder steel and sounding brass,
Insult the stallion in his stall,
And, scorning barriers of class,
Infiltrate you and me! Like tall
And painless guillotines, they fall
Down through our heads into the grass.
At night, they enter at Nepal
And pierce the lover and his lass
From underneath the bed – you call
It wonderful; I call it crass.
Insomnia the Gem of the Ocean
by John Updike
When I lay me down to sleep
My waterbed says, “Gurgle gleep,”
And when I readjustment crave
It answers me with a tidal wave
That lifts me like a bark canoe
Adrift in breakers off Peru.
Neap to my spring, ebb to my flow,
It turns my pulse to undertow,
It turns my thoughts to bubbles, it
Still undulates when I would quit;
Two bags of water, it and I
In restless sympathy here lie.
(I’m going back to bed)
The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures, Updike’s debut volume of light verse, was published in March of 1958 and it remains in print today [I don’t think this is the case in North America but I haven’t had time to check]. Half a century on it is a scold (and an encouragement) for all those readers who peer into first books and try to prognosticate. It wriggles with a love of language, a winking sense of humor. But who would have known this clever wit would turn into a serious chronicler of post-war American life?
In the late ’50s, Updike’s ear and eye were partially tuned to England, where light verse was something of a martial art. (Although Ogden Nash held America’s end up quite well). Updike had spent a year studying at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, and he sketches his way into publication with “Duet, With Muffled Break Drums,” a tongue-in-cheek tale about the origin of England’s famous carmaker:
Where gray walks slope through shadows shaped like lace
Down to dimpleproof ponds, a precious place
Where birds of porcelain sing as one voice
Two gold and velvet notes – there Rolls met Royce.
How antique rhyming light verse seems today. But as John Hollander reminds in American Wits: An Anthology of Light Verse, there was a time when the “ability to read and write accentual-syllabic verse was part of what it meant to be literate.” Indeed, in Poetry and the Age, his great collection of essays, Randall Jarrell laments that the enlightened businessman of yore had put down his pen for other entertainments.
Updike, who grew up middle-class in rural Pennsylvania and attended university at Harvard, was doing more than just taking part of this tradition.
Read the rest here. Worth noting with respect to the “martial art” of light verse in England that W.H. Auden was a champion, compiling his own anthology which is recently back in print thanks to NYRB Classics. And it was Auden who wrote the foreword to Phyllis McGinley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Times Three: Selected Verse from Three Decades (1960).
Also in my haste yesterday, I neglected to mention writer J.D. Smith‘s letter to the editor in The New York Times last week which I was tickled to read. A prescient bit in defense of Miss McGinley in particular and light verse in general:
Ginia Bellafante’s welcome appreciation of Phyllis McGinley (“Suburban Rapture,” Dec. 28) errs only in referring to “the disappearance of light verse” in contemporary poetry. Established poets like X. J. Kennedy and R. S. Gwynn, not to mention Richard Wilbur, have written and published light verse throughout their careers, and Light, the quarterly edited by John Mella, consistently provides a forum for the best practitioners of light verse in English.
Light verse has, however, become much harder to find. With rare exceptions, The New Yorker and other general interest magazines have abandoned light verse, as have the larger publishing houses. This development is particularly baffling given that light verse is consistently well received at readings and appreciated by audiences who are not themselves poets.
Read the rest of J.D. Smith’s letter here.
I’ll give the last words to John Updike, from a 2004 interview:
What was the first thing you wrote that was published?
John Updike: I actually sold a few poems in my teens to marginal magazines. I remember one poem, “The Boy Who Makes the Blackboard Squeak,” meaning the sort of naughty boy who makes the chalk squeak deliberately. I was paid maybe $5 or $10 for it, but my hope was to get into The New Yorker magazine, which began to come into the house when I was about 11 or 12.
I wouldn’t think you could find The New Yorker very readily in Shillington.
John Updike: No. The New Yorker was not a Berks County thing. There may have been a few subscribers, but the newsstands did not carry it because I used to look for it. But my aunt, who lived in Greenwich, Connecticut, and was kind of a hip lady — she was my father’s sister — she thought that we, as a benighted provincial household, could use The New Yorker and I, in fact, did use it. I loved it. I read the cartoons, but then other things too. The whole tone of the magazine was so superior to any other slick magazine, so I was aimed at The New Yorker. My writing career really begins with the day in June of ’54 when we were staying with my wife’s parents in Vermont, and word came up that there was a letter from The New Yorker, and they had taken a poem, and then a little later that summer they took a story. So rightly or wrongly, I felt kind of launched as a writer, a real writer.
They hired you not long after that, didn’t they?
John Updike: I was in Oxford the year after college with my then wife, who had been a Radcliffe girl. At that point she was a pregnant Radcliffe girl — we had a little girl in April. About that same time, Katharine White and her more famous husband, E.B. White, came to visit us in our basement flat. Katharine White was the fiction editor and a woman of great power, one of the founding members of The New Yorker in ’25, and indeed they offered me a job. Or maybe she just told me I could see Shawn, the editor, when I got back to the States. I did, and he offered me a job, and I worked in New York for about two years.
What had you published by then? One story and one poem?
John Updike: That semester I think I placed four or five more stories with them, as well as quite a number of light verse poems. Light verse was in its twilight, but I didn’t know that so I kept scribbling the stuff and they kept running it for a while. So, I was kind of establishing myself as a dependable contributor and they were a paternalistic organization that tried to gather unto itself talented — whatever — writers. And it was funny to want to do that, because really about the only slot they had to offer was to write for “Talk of the Town,” the front section. We moved in, a little family of three into Riverside Drive, and I began to write these stories, and discovered I could do it, and had kind of a good time doing it. You went around in New York and interviewed people who attended Coliseum shows — kitchen appliances or whatever — and I was very good at making something out of almost nothing. But, I thought after two years that maybe I had gone as far as I could with “The Talk of the Town” as an art form and I felt New York was a kind of unnatural place to live. I had two children at this point, and my wife didn’t have too many friends and wasn’t, I didn’t think, very happy. Well in the ’50s one didn’t think too hard about whether or not your wife was happy, sad to say, but even I could see that, so I said, “Why don’t we quit the job for a while.” I thought they’d take me back if it didn’t work out, and I’ll try to freelance up in New England, so there is where we went. We moved to a small town in New England and I never had to go back because I was able to support myself.