John Updike's Non-Poetry
My thoughts re John Updike’s non-poetry bear some relation to Jason’s accidental and deliberate poetry meditations. I had problems w both those distinction because all poetry seems to me to be in the John Ashbery sense “managed chance” and so gets subsumed into “poetry” pretty quick. I mean it to seem accidental. And the problem with the deliberate poetry category was August’s relationship to content. Not only did it bug me that he talked about the little professor but when a poem has a rhetorical quest it seems you are really hanging a kick me sign on your butt. One can agree or disagree, basically do everything but experience the poem. I don’t think a poem has a point. It felt like both August and the little professor do. That’s a big difference, to me
in terms of what we are doing as poets. One of the things I had hoped would happen here on this blog is that maybe we could air some very obvious seeming statements of aesthetics because I think there’s often simply a lot of backroom politics in the poetry world or else upfront détente among people who don’t actually like each others work.
The earlier discussion about reviews touched on this too. To have a lively, and slightly dangerous poetry world one of the prerequisites would be that we would trade some polite ambition in order to court that wild exchange. I remember a few years ago there was a Lyric meets Language Women’s Conference at Barnard and both Lucie Brock Broido and Lyn Hejinian were there but nobody talked about their differences. Why sit in the same room if you don’t want to talk. I suspect people don’t want to let go of their secret thoughts that that (referring to the work of some aesthetic other) “isn’t poetry.” The critique is too overwhelmingly large to be even ventured so we sit in the over fed silence of family. Now that I think about it Marjorie Perloff and also some guy said outrageous things but no poet did. They had too much to lose.
So John Updike. I actually could care less about his poetry, even whether it is that or not. What I was floored by really was the review in the Times recently of his last book. A British poet (and I’m dying to put quotes around that word) wrote an incredibly pro-man review. I mean if a woman wrote this way about a famous dead woman I guess you’d call it feminist. Actually I think you’d call it lesbian. Updike’s virility initially seemed to be the subject of the review as it expresses itself in poetry. Twice the reviewer refers to Updike’s enviable position on “Team America.” He means the canon of American writers. Updike also is called the “Top Gun technician.” Uh-huh. Then you realize that even the headline editors are helping to mount the reviewer’s cause, titling the piece “Final Act.” Did they run the piece because they are snickering at the writer. Or snickering at poetry. Snickering at something. Because otherwise the piece seemed insane to me. We hear about John Updike’s “overmastering” or simply “masterful early lust” and then of course his “virile immortality.” And getting published, we learn, turned him into “Errol Flynn” who is also alluded to in the same review as the “priapic actor.”
Of course once one gets this excited it’s time for some homophobia. That’s like the froth on the corners of the mouth of the fanatic. We hear about Updike’s undying lust for Doris Day (who I have to mention, was a lesbian.) The reviewer bemoans that Updike, had he written more poetry would have given us more of his fine writing about Doris Day. “But poetry was only his holiday…a pity perhaps… he might’ve written the poetry that reported America….He could have given us a lot more Doris Day. Frank O’Hara became famous largely for a single mention of Lana Turner.”
I’m not even going to take that on. I just wanted to show it. Cause now I need to zero in on the true uncanniness of this review. It is not the strange construction of a posthumous beefcake portrait of John Updike, The Man. No, this review is actually about all the poetry Updike didn’t write. He needed a big house, he liked girls and he just didn’t have the time. That’s how it goes for Team America. That’s it.
Now considering that the Times doesn’t do a lot of poetry reviewing isn’t a full page review of what a famous novelist who is not a poet didn’t write sort a waste of good trees. But here it comes – the most astonishing line I have ever read in any poetry review anywhere and it is I think a deep testament to the Times’s enduring even unifying (for us) contempt for American poetry. Here it is, in the words of Team Britannica, Clive James: “Let there be no doubt, though about the high quality of what he might have done.”
Our paper of record. Now that’s beautiful, right?
Eileen Myles was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1949, was educated in Catholic schools, graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Boston in 1971, and moved to New York City in 1974 to be a poet. She gave her first reading at CBGB's, and then gravitated to St. Mark's church where she...