Updike’s poetry.

In his recent New York Times review of John Updike’s Endpoint and Other Poems, Clive James concludes, rather interestingly, that while Updike’s reputation rests as it should on his abilities as a prose writer, he had in him, contrary to what others believed and what he himself professed to believe, everything that was necessary to make him a very good poet indeed.

In a single poem, he did enough to prove that he not only had the whole tradition of English-language poetry in his head, he had the means to add to it. “Bird Caught in My Deer Netting” deliberately and justifiably echoes Frost in its title, and in its body we can hear Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Crowe Ransom and — well, everyone, really, Jack Benny included.

How many starved hours of struggle resumed
in fits of life’s irritation did it take
to seal and sew shut the berry-bright eyes
and untie the tiny wild knot of a heart?
I cannot know, discovering this wad
of junco-fluff, weightless and wordless
in its corner of netting deer cannot chew through
nor gravity-defying bird bones break.

It’s a wonderful poem, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves. He wrote very few like it, and usually, even on the comparatively rare occasions when he tried to give it every­thing, he was led toward frivolity by his fatal propensity for reveling in skill. But his very last book, a book of poems, proves that he always had what it took.

Earlier in the review James allows that that most of the poems Updike “ever published in book form counted as light verse, but his light verse was dauntingly accomplished”. That put together with the fact that James has shown that he “always always had what it took” to be a good poet amounts to a stong case for the reader to spend a little time with Updike the poet.

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