Thursday, January 29, 2009

giving the mundane its beautiful due


Giving the mundane its beautiful due
he achieved when he strewed like confetti
his books and short stories, plus poems I view
as arias to his fine libretti,
not forgetting reviews of a large range of fiction,
and art that allowed him to show
erudition as well as his great predilection
for images he caused to glow
with words that illuminate until today,
and will to the end of all time,
engaging our minds from which words ricochet,
as they do in this tribute in rhyme,
though mostly confined to amiddle-class grid,
not solving irrational riddles
created by conflicts of ego and id,
his favorite places the middles.
Neither hare nor a tortoise, I’m merely a rabbit
who’s running to keep up with him,
just sharing one thing with this master: his habit
of filling wordcups to the brim,
though only in his case can we say his cup
runneth over with goodness. Bookbalm
cannot sooth us in Gilead, or now make up
bewitched, for the loss of his charm.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in his obituary of John Updike in the NYT, January 28, 2009 (“John Updike, A Lyrical Writer of the Middle-Class Mn, Dies at 76” and Michiko Kakutani (“A Relentless Updike Mapped America’s Mysteries”) both write obituaries of John Updike in the NYT, January 28, 2009:

Lehmann-Haupt writes:

Of Mr. Updike’s many novels and stories, perhaps none captured the imagination of the book-reading public more than his precisely observed tales about ordinary citizens in small-town and urban settings. His best-known protagonist, Harry Rabbit Angstrom, first appears as a former high-school basketball star trapped in a loveless marriage and a sales job he hates. Through the four novels whose titles bear his nickname — “Rabbit, Run,” “Rabbit Redux,” “Rabbit Is Rich” and “Rabbit at Rest” — the author traces the funny, restless and questing life of this middle-American against the background of the last half-century’s major events. “My subject is the American Protestant small-town middle class,” Mr. Updike told Jane Howard in a 1966 interview for Life magazine. “I like middles,” he continued. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.” From his earliest short stories, he found his subject in the everyday dramas of marriage, sex and divorce, setting them most often in the fictional town of Olinger, Pa., which he described as “a square mile of middle-class homes physically distinguished by a bend in the central avenue that compels some side streets to deviate from the grid.” He wrote about America with boundless curiosity and wit in prose so careful and attentive that it burnished the ordinary with a painterly gleam.

Kakutani writes:

Endowed with an art student’s pictorial imagination, a journalist’s sociological eye and a poet’s gift for metaphor, John Updike — who died on Tuesday at 76 — was arguably this country’s one true all-around man of letters. He moved fluently from fiction to criticism, from light verse to short stories to the long-distance form of the novel: a literary decathlete in our age of electronic distraction and willful specialization, Victorian in his industriousness and almost blogger-like in his determination to turn every scrap of knowledge and experience into words. It is as a novelist who opened a big picture window on the American middle class in the second half of the 20th century, however, that he will be best remembered. In his most resonant work, Mr. Updike gave “the mundane its beautiful due,” as he once put it, memorializing the everyday mysteries of love and faith and domesticity with extraordinary nuance and precision. In Kodachrome-sharp snapshots, he gave us the 50’s and early 60’s of suburban adultery, big cars and wide lawns, radios and hi-fi sets, and he charted the changing landscape of the 70’s and 80’s, as malls and subdivisions swallowed up small towns and sexual and social mores underwent a bewildering metamorphosis….In one of these collections, Mr. Updike summed up his love of his vocation: “From earliest childhood I was charmed by the materials of my craft, by pencils and paper and, later, by the typewriter and the entire apparatus of printing. To condense from one’s memories and fantasies and small discoveries dark marks on paper which become handsomely reproducible many times over still seems to me, after nearly 30 years concerned with the making of books, a magical act, and a delightful technical process. To distribute oneself thus, as a kind of confetti shower falling upon the heads and shoulders of mankind out of bookstores and the pages of magazines is surely a great privilege and a defiance of the usual earthbound laws whereby human beings make themselves known to one another.”

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/28/09

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