John Updike

Who Needs Them?

Religious Consolation
by John Updike, from Americana and Other Poems

Americana: and Other Poems by John UpdikeOne size fits all. The shape or coloration
of the god or high heaven matters less
than that there is one, somehow, somewhere, hearing
the hasty prayer and chalking up the mite
the widow brings to the temple. A child
alone with horrid verities cries out
for there to be a limit, a warm wall
whose stones give back an answer, however faint.

Strange, the extravagance of it—who needs
those eighteen-armed black Kalis, those musty saints
whose bones and bleeding wounds appall good taste,
those joss sticks, houris, gilded Buddhas, books
Moroni etched in tedious detail?
We do; we need more worlds. This one will fail.

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See also: Updike's 'This I Believe' Essay
[Thanks, Suzanne!]

This Churning is Our Journey

Tossing and Turning
By John Updike, from Collected Poems 1953-1993

updike The spirit has infinite facets, but the body
confiningly few sides.
There is the left,
the right, the back, the belly, and tempting
in-betweens, northeasts and northwests,
that tip the heart and soon pinch circulation
in one or another arm.
Yet we turn each time
with fresh hope, believing that sleep
will visit us here, descending like an angel
down the angle our flesh's sextant sets,
tilted toward that unreachable star
hung in the night between our eyebrows, whence
dreams and good luck flow.
Uncross
your ankles. Unclench your philosophy.
This bed was invented by others; know we go
to sleep less to rest than to participate
in the twists of another world.
This churning is our journey.
It ends,
can only end, around a corner
we do not know
we are turning.

Steadily

Photo: Jill Krementz “John Updike filled his 50 years of writing with probably seven or eight normal writing careers. He did so by fusing two artistic virtues that rarely meet in the same person: a frisky, easy, improvisational energy and a rigorous, workaday discipline. He was both the ant and the grasshopper, accountant and poet, Trollope and Rimbaud. His solution to the daily crisis of inspiration was simply not to have it: He wrote steadily, with very little angst, three pages a day, five days a week.”

From “Three Pages a Day,” by Sam Anderson, New York Magazine (Feb. 1, 2009)

Indirect Methods of Communication

Testing the Limits of What I Know and Feel
by John Updike, NPR’s This I Believe (4.18.05):

Photo of John Updike by Nubar Alexanian A person believes various things at various times, even on the same day. At the age of 73, I seem most instinctively to believe in the human value of creative writing, whether in the form of verse or fiction, as a mode of truth-telling, self-expression and homage to the twin miracles of creation and consciousness. The special value of these indirect methods of communication –- as opposed to the value of factual reporting and analysis -- is one of precision. Oddly enough, the story or poem brings us closer to the actual texture and intricacy of experience.

In fiction, imaginary people become realer to us than any named celebrity glimpsed in a series of rumored events, whose causes and subtler ramifications must remain in the dark. An invented figure like Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary emerges fully into the light of understanding, which brings with it identification, sympathy and pity. I find in my own writing that only fiction -- and rarely, a poem -- fully tests me to the kind of limits of what I know and what I feel. In composing even such a frank and simple account as this profession of belief, I must fight against the sensation that I am simplifying and exploiting my own voice.

I also believe, instinctively, if not very cogently, in the American political experiment, which I take to be, at bottom, a matter of trusting the citizens to know their own minds and best interests. "To govern with the consent of the governed": this spells the ideal. And though the implementation will inevitably be approximate and debatable, and though totalitarianism or technocratic government can obtain some swift successes, in the end, only a democracy can enlist a people's energies on a sustained and renewable basis. To guarantee the individual maximum freedom within a social frame of minimal laws ensures -- if not happiness -- its hopeful pursuit.

Cosmically, I seem to be of two minds. The power of materialist science to explain everything -- from the behavior of the galaxies to that of molecules, atoms and their sub-microscopic components -- seems to be inarguable and the principal glory of the modern mind. On the other hand, the reality of subjective sensations, desires and -- may we even say -- illusions, composes the basic substance of our existence, and religion alone, in its many forms, attempts to address, organize and placate these. I believe, then, that religious faith will continue to be an essential part of being human, as it has been for me.

* * *

Remembering John Updike, Literary Legend,” excerpts from Fresh Air interviews from March 17, 1988, March 16, 1989, and Oct. 14, 1997.

Slum Lords

Americana: and Other Poems by John Updike

The superrich make lousy neighbors—
they buy a house and tear it down
and build another, twice as big, and leave.
They're never there; they own so many
other houses, each demands a visit.
Entire neighborhoods called fashionable,
bustling with servants and masters, such as
Louisburg Square in Boston or Bel Air in L.A.,
are districts now like Wall Street after dark
or Tombstone once the silver boom went bust.
The essence of superrich is absence.
They like to demonstrate they can afford
to be elsewhere. Don't let them in.
Their riches form a kind of poverty.

~ by John Updike, from Americana: and Other Poems

The Supreme Fabulist of Modern Man's Cosmic Predicament

From the forward by John Updike (originally published as an article in the New Yorker) to The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka:

"It is the shorter stories, too, that sparkle most with country glimpses, with a savor of folk tales and a still-medieval innocence. They remind us that Kafka wrote in a Europe where islands of urban wealth, culture, and discontent were surrounded by a countryside still, in its simplicity, apparently in possession of the secret of happiness, of harmony with the powers of earth and sky. Modernity has proceeded far enough, and spread wide enough, to make us doubt that anyone really has this secret. Part of Kafka’s strangeness, and part of his enduring appeal, was to suspect that everyone except himself had the secret. He received from his father an impression of helpless singularity, of being a 'slave living under laws invented only for him.' A shame literally unspeakable attached itself to this impression. Fantasy, for Kafka even more than for most writers of fiction, was the way out of his skin, so he could get back in. He felt, as it were, abashed before the fact of his own existence, 'amateurish' in that this had never been quite expressed before. So singular, he spoke for millions in their new unease; more than a century after his birth he seems the last holy writer, and the supreme fabulist of modern man’s cosmic predicament."