Poetry News

The New Yorker Puts Two & Two Together: John Wieners, Meet John Updike

By Harriet Staff


The New Yorker's Dan Chiasson looks at "The Boston Boys," by which he means poet John Wieners, whose posthumous collections Supplication: Selected Poems of John Wieners, has just been published by Wave Books, and Stars Seen In Person, Selected Journals out from City Lights...

I was one of the non-bohemians who lived on the Hill in the nineteen-nineties, and I kept a keen eye out for Wieners, who was by then a folkloric creature, like the yeti or the headless horseman. Pictures of him from that era do not convince me that I never glimpsed him: he looks familiarly lost, generically grizzled, just like the homeless men who foraged under the Charles Street T station and got into wild, operatic quarrels while Wieners lingered “opposite the elevated railroad / tracks / at Cambridge street & Charles / when every hope burns to stinking inconsequence.”

Whenever Wieners was asked what sort of poet he was, he replied, “A Boston poet.”

...and John Updike, who wrote poetry? "No two human beings seem more different than Wieners and John Updike, a contemporary and a fellow-denizen of greater Boston, and yet the parcelling of the world into overlapping zones of propriety and perversity, and the use of poetry as a means of travelling between those regions, unite them. It is a common judgment of Updike that he seems to have written poems with one hand tied behind his back, while golfing and having sex with someone’s wife at the same time." Indeed. More from this piece below; find it all here.

There’s no reason to add to the slander and vitriol that get heaped upon Updike’s poems, mainly by upstart brats like me, every time an edition of them appears. Maybe it’s being middle-aged myself, or my memory of seeing the great man walking alone on the beach, not long before he died, looking serene, even beatific, but Updike’s “Selected Poems” (Knopf), edited by Christopher Carduff, strikes me as a book that anybody who loves Updike, or poetry, or Cape Ann—or, for that matter, golf or sex—should read. That should cover more or less everybody.

Perhaps because poetry’s readership is smaller than fiction’s, or because one can always hide behind the screen of forms and personae (or shame someone who peers behind the screen), Updike’s poems seem, if anything, more intimate than his sometimes uncomfortably confiding fiction, as though even the very light disguises of his most revealing books—“Couples,” or the late novel “In the Beauty of the Lilies,” for example—were shed. I suspect that Updike liked the paradox of writing so nakedly in a style nevertheless quilted with exquisite verbiage. If you’ve decided that poetry is really life steeped or fermented in language, you have to find examples of life ever plainer, uglier, more prone to being skipped by literature. But the additive of Updike’s style works in only one way, upping the quotient of mellow beauty or manageable melancholy wherever we go, from Vermont to Waikiki, and whatever is described, whether forsythia or Frankie Laine. His poems sometimes feel like adjuncts of his stories, evincing a fiction writer’s delight in details that exist outside the crewelwork of storytelling; crumbs, one-offs, outtakes. A poem can suspend in its own substance moments in time that, in a short story or a novel, would be jettisoned unless they strengthened the over-all narrative web.

Updike’s poems are not trifles; he could be surprisingly formally ambitious, even experimental. The problem is that all of his poems about strain, discomfort, and regret cheer him, and we don’t associate cheer with great poetry. The poems often feel like the by-products of the happy diversion they provided their author while he was writing them, an effect most striking when it seems least intended.