Interview

Inside Game

John Updike answers questions about his poem “Ex-Basketball Player.”

John Updike, who died in early 2009 at age 76, is more popular on our site than Shakespeare. His poem "Ex-Basketball Player" started soaring during the 2006 NCAA finals, but since then, has remained in our top ten most popular poems, and has had, so far, 89,6987 hits. Why? Is there a social network of nostalgic middle-aged men looking back at their star-studded high-school years? As 2006 drew to a close, we turned to John Updike for answers, and he was, as always, charming, gracious and insightful.

1. What’s the relationship between Flick and Rabbit Angstrom? Which character came to you first? Is Rabbit, Run a deeper exploration of themes you first dealt with in “Ex-Basketball Player?”

Flick came first, in a poem written in 1954—my first “serious” poem published in The New Yorker. Then came Ace Anderson, hero of the short story “Ace in the Hole,” written in college, and in revised form also published in The New Yorker. Lastly, written in 1959, Rabbit, Run, whose Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is clearly a brother to the other two; indeed, the short story and the novel both begin with the hero returning home to his wife and small child. One of the dominant impressions of my growing-up in Pennsylvania—where I saw a lot of basketball games, thanks to my father’s being a high-school teacher and a ticket taker at home games—was the glory of home-town athletic stars, and their often anti-climactic post-graduation careers.

2. Your poem “Ex-Basketball Player” is more popular than Shakespeare on our site. We first noticed its popularity during the NCAA basketball finals last March. What do you think accounts for its popularity (or Shakespeare’s decline?)

The poem is one of the few of mine to appear in school anthologies. I am surprised it still speaks to young readers, since much of the imagery—Esso gas pumps, small-town garages, lemon phosphates, Nibs, and Juju Beads—has become obsolete. The garage I had in mind (also found in my early novel The Centaur) has long since become a Turkey Hill Minimarket. But perhaps the curve of adolescent success and adult disappointment is still with us, and Flick’s failure to produce a second act in his life’s drama worthy of the first is still a useful American metaphor. As to Shakespeare, he can take care of himself; but for uninitiated readers his Elizabethan language and intricate Metaphysical poetics will pose a formidable barrier. Lowering it is what educations are for.

3. The need to earn a living played a big part in your choosing to write fiction rather than poetry. If poetry were wildly popular, do you think you would have switched genres? How do you think poetry’s failure in the marketplace affects American poetry?

Had poetry paid as well as fiction, I would have written more of it. In the first decade of my free-lancing, the checks from The New Yorker for my (mostly light) verse were not, in my budget, insignificant. Back then, Robert Frost and Ogden Nash were still living examples of professional poets. I would not call poetry’s present marketplace position a “failure,” since no contemporary poet expects to make a living by it. He or she teaches, rather, or has an independent income. While making my living elsewhere, I have never stopped writing and reading poetry, as the exercise of language at its highest pitch. But let me add that I am dismayed by the recent rise of the term “literary fiction,” denoting a genre almost as rarefied and special and “curious” in its appeal, to contemporary Americans, as poetry.
Originally Published: January 27, 2009

COMMENTS (11)

On December 3, 2006 at 2:40pm Daniel Picker wrote:
This comment has been removed at the request of the poster.

On January 25, 2007 at 8:51pm AHMADF wrote:
Is the meaning of this poem even about basketball?
If not, I am not getting it and can you please explain the meaning of it to me?

On September 30, 2007 at 5:27pm Shaqwanna Atkins wrote:
Very good poetry

On November 29, 2007 at 9:21pm Mildrede wrote:
This is a pretty good poem. "Flick" reminds me of the character "Mike" from the movie "Breaking Away"... especially the scene where he talks about how he will get old and never play football. Has anyone else seen this movie and sees this connection or is it just me? :]

On February 24, 2008 at 8:09pm young jock wrote:
good poem

On April 3, 2008 at 1:04pm Daniel Picker wrote:
This comment has been removed at the request of the poster.

On April 17, 2008 at 9:03am jeff R wrote:
i like your poems ,1 ex-basketbal player

On February 5, 2009 at 4:03pm Dwain Preston wrote:
I have always loved this poem, partly because I was a small-town basketball player, and I have watched ex-high school players live on in the glory of those years. The imagery, to me, is very real (Updike was only three years my senior). And, I might add, it is very well written.

On February 7, 2009 at 1:06am Jason Jones wrote:
Wonder if Springsteen ever read it? "Glory Days" is in the same vein.

On March 30, 2009 at 1:31pm Nick wrote:
nice

On March 31, 2009 at 1:03pm Nick wrote:
im writing a research paper on this poem

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