Though it might be blasphemy to say, John Updike’s writing is easier to digest, and probably just plain better in verse form. In prose, his writing is so dense you sometimes lose track of what’s going on as you pause to marvel at the way he strings words together to form impossibly beautiful, textured sentences. With poetry, his style is leaner, each word carrying more of its share of the intended thought. His utterly brilliant facility of language is still on display but he must employ an economy that is not in effect in his prose.
With Americana, his sixth poetry collection and the first issued since the omnibus Collected Poems 1953-1993, Updike shows that he still has a nearly unequaled talent for finding the poetic possibilities of the everyday, the fanciful, and the mundane. The book’s 62 poems are divided into four loosely thematic sections: America and travel; his life, birthdays and illness; foreign travel and Europe; and daily life and furniture.
The first section is the most humorous, the most reminiscent of his early light verse penned for The New Yorker. In “The Overhead Rack,” for instance, he draws numerous laughs from 32 lines about the democratizing effects of airline luggage restrictions. Over the course of a dozen or so poems he finds new and interesting metaphors for travel, airplanes and hotel rooms. These follow the first of three longer poems that appear in the collection, “Americana,” subtitled “Poem Begun on Thursday, Oct. 14, 1993, at O’Hare Airport, Terminal 3, around Six O’Clock P.M.,” a self-referential slice of life inspired by a wait at the airport.
Outside the world of travel he turns his eye toward America’s cities. That eye is still sharp: after 50 years of observation Updike notes how New York City’s high rises dominate the landscape, buildings “whose sheets of windows rise like thirsty thunder.”
The second section finds Updike ruminating on his own advancing age. The 69-year-old is obviously quite taken with the approaching appellation “old man,” marveling in a handful of poems at his hands and their ailments and scars, “two open pages of a detestable yet gripping book.” What is perhaps the best piece in the book is found here, the magnificent “In the Cemetery High Above Shillington.” As Updike passes among the gravestones, reading names that will be familiar to long-time readers Tothero, for instance, the name of Rabbit’s basketball coach in “Rabbit, Run,” is one he muses on the 50 years that have passed since he was a boy riding a bicycle among the same markers. It reads like a book’s worth of short stories in one poem. “In rented car, on idle impulse, briefly home if ‘home’ is understood as where one was as a child, I glide into this long forgotten space,” he writes. Elsewhere he is able to make a medical diagnosis sound positively poetic in “Ocular Hypertension”: “Wow! I liked the swanky sound, the hint of jazz, the rainbow edginess: malais of high-class orbs.”
Whether it stems from the collective logorrhea of the first two sections or from the fact that the topics of foreign travel and furniture are not as fertile as American travel and the author’s life, the book seems to lose steam over its second half. Still, he pulls out a long poem in the final section that is simply beautiful in its use of language, one of the long pieces that act as moral and figurative focal points for the book. The autobiographical “Song to Myself” is a lengthy meditation, a cynical greeting card from Updike to Updike:
My mind mocks itself as I strive to pray,
to squeeze from a dried-up creed
enough anaesthetizing balm
to enroll me among sleep’s tranced citizenry,
who know no void nor common sense.
Reading Updike’s poetry, one empathizes with Nicholson Baker, the author who so eloquently recounted in his book U and I how Updike seems to have already been to places where lesser writers eventually look. Just this evening, taking a respite from reading Americana and Collected Poems, I was taken by the staggering number of fireflies sparking across the lawns of Iowa City like tiny bursts of electricity. Filing the image away for later use, I returned to Updike, to Collected Poems and the poem “Iowa,” to be exact. There I found Updike’s own remembrance of a similar scene: “those fireflies this winter holds them in it like a jar.” I’m not sure where he was in Iowa to see such a sight in winter, but the image was perfect, better than anything I could have conceived from similar inspiration.
To read Americana is to experience this feeling page after page. Updike’s writing and vocabulary place him in rarified air with few peers. In verse, that talent and intellect are featured in what is perhaps their best arena, a place where his razor sharp wit, keen observational eye, and precise writing shine the brightest.