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Interview

Inside Game

John Updike answers questions about his poem “Ex-Basketball Player.”
Introduction
John Updike’s poem “Ex-Basketball Player” is more popular on our site than Shakespeare. It started soaring last March during the NCAA finals, but since then, has remained in our top ten most popular poems, having been displayed more than 10,000 times. Why? Is there some social network of nostalgic middle-aged men looking back at their star-studded high-school years? We turned to John Updike for answers.
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.

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Inside Game

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

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