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John Updike

An acclaimed and award-winning writer of fiction, essays, and reviews, John Updike also wrote poetry for most of his life. Growing up in Pennsylvania, his early inspiration to be a writer came from watching his mother, an aspiring writer, submit her work to magazines. In an interview Updike stated, “I began as a writer of light verse, and have tried to carry over into my serious or lyric verse something of the strictness and liveliness of the lesser form.” In his teens, he was already publishing poems in magazines. Though he knew that he would not make a living by writing only poetry, his writing career began in 1954 when the New Yorker accepted one of his poems, followed by a short story. His first book, The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures (1958), was a collection of poems.

Updike’s career as a writer has been remarkably prolific and varied. In addition to poetry, his work included novels (The Witches of Eastwick, Rabbit Redux, and Rabbit, Run), short stories, music criticism (Concerts at Castle Hill), and essays on art (Just Looking: Essays on Art) and golf (Golf Dreams: Writing on Golf). His awards include the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (for both Rabbit Is Rich in 1981, and Rabbit at Rest in 1991), the American Book Award for fiction, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for both fiction and criticism.

His poetry, starting as light verse, encompasses a variety of forms and topics. His poetry was praised for his wit and precision, and for his ability to focus on common subjects and on places near and distant—from Shillington, Pennsylvania (the town of his childhood), to Venice, Italy. His collections of poetry include Facing Nature: Poems, Collected Poems: 1953–1993, and Americana and Other Poems (2001). (Poetry Foundation)

John Updike is one of my favorite poets. In fact, my favorite poem, Dog’s Death, was written by him. I’m including him again this week as a tribute to Camp NaNoWriMo which is coming up in April. The poem is about his mother and HER writing. Watching her was Updike’s earliest inspiration. I think the poem conveys some of his sadness for her that she never gained the acclaim she sought. It’s very tender. I’m guessing there are a lot of mothers (and fathers) who will be writing next month who may, perhaps, inspire a budding poet as well…


My Mother at Her Desk 

My mother knew non-publication’s shame,
obscurity’s abyss, where blind hands flog
typewriter keys in hopes of raising up
the magic combination that will sell.
Instead, brown envelopes return, bent double
in letter slots to flop on the foyer floor
or else abandoned flat within the tin
of the rural mailbox, as insects whirr.

She studied How To, diagrammed Great Plots
some correspondence course assigned, read Mann,
Flaubert, and Faulkner, looking for the clue,
the “open sesame” to fling the cave door back
and flood with light the shadows in her heart
to turn them golden, worth their weight in cash.

Mine was to be the magic gift instead,
propelled to confidence by mother-love
and polished for the New York market by
New England’s wintry flair for education.
But hers was the purer ambition, hatched
of country childhood in the silences
of crops accruing, her sole companions birds
whose songs and names she taught herself to know.
Her gray head cocked, she’d say, “The chickadee
feels lonely!” Bent above a book, she’d lift
her still-young face and say, “Such ugly words!”
as if each stood alone. No, no, I thought,
context is all. But I was male, and made
to make a mark, while Mother typed birdsong.


Picture Source: Clive James