John Updike died on January 27, 2009, at the age of 76. I heard him read at an old church in Boston years ago. He was 35 at the time, supremely confident, and he read a long poem in blank verse called “Midpoint.” I remember nothing about the poem other than the title and that it was a serious poem.

On January 29, 2009, The New York Times published a short poem from a forthcoming collection by the author, Endpoint and Other Poems, called “Requiem.” It’s a short, self-deprecating poem in rhymed verse. So the author lived beyond his midpoint by six years.

One of the things I liked about Updike was his good verse. He kept at it over the years so that he was in sufficiently good shape, though he was dying of cancer, to write 16 good lines for his sendoff.

Like most American writers of talent, he discovered early in life that poetry doesn’t pay much, and so threw the bulk of his time and talent into novels and stories. It was a strategy that paid off handsomely. He certainly lived the writer’s life before the age of media distractions we are now immersed in.

He appeared on Charlie Rose on PBS in November last year. He was charming, as usual, quick-witted and sharp in his answers. He said that maybe he had been too much the writer of the suburban world he had created in the Rabbit series. I think he was right about that. After all, how seriously can we take a character named Rabbit?

Updike was a very good writer, on the top tier of second rank or, generously, on the lower tier of first rank. He could pack about as much into a sentence as anyone could. I don’t think he was a great writer; America has produced very few, if any, really great writers in the 20th Century, though we certainly have many very good ones.

The difference is depth of feeling and character. In Updike, there was a bit too much cleverness where there should have been depth. Still, I will miss him for his sparkling, poetic prose. His death diminishes the world I grew up in. May he rest in reprints.

Advertisements