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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Number 4: John Updike "Thoughts While Driving Home"

Thoughts While Driving Home

Was I clever enough? Was I charming?

Did I make at least one good pun?

Was I disconcerting? Disarming?

Was I wise? Was I wan? Was I fun?

Did I answer that girl with white shoulders

Correctly, or should I have said

(Engagingly), “Kierkegaard smolders,

But Eliot’s ashes are dead?”

And did I, while being a smarty,

Yet some wry reserve slyly keep,

So they murmured, when I’d left the party,

“He’s deep. He’s deep. He’s deep”?

Hap Notes: Since it's the weekend, I thought I'd bring you to a party or, at least, the drive home from one.

John Updike (1932-2009) needs no introduction to the literate. I love Updike's poetry and while I'm not a huge fan of his novels, reading the criticisms Harold Bloom and Gore Vidal heap upon his books always put me in the uncomfortable position of feeling defensive for someone I'm not so crazy about. His writing prowess is above reproach. I'm just not fond of his middle-class characters- they wouldn't like me either. You might be surprised to learn that he originally wanted to be an artist or a cartoonist. Updike was also a thoughtful literary critic.

The poem turns in on itself- it is amusingly clever and self conscious. It reeks of a highly literate social gathering in the 50s with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. In the mind's eye men in suits and women in chic cocktail dresses and spiky heels are all making with the bon mots and hitting on each other surrounded by sleek Raymond Loewy furniture as they listen to a John Coltrane record- maybe "Blue Train." The insecurity that hits one after attending a party full of people you would like to impress is perfectly nailed and also, the amused silliness of wanting to do so. It makes you laugh and feel sheepish. By the way, don't try using that Kierkegaard line now to pick up chicks. Just sayin'. Unless you think they know this poem.

I dug this poem out of my battered and cranky copy of "The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures; Telephone Poles and Other Poems" that I bought with babysitting money when I was a sophomore in high school for 60¢ (the price is on the cover) at a bookstore in downtown St. Paul. I felt as sophisticated as that 50's party when I bought it. Which now strikes me as amusing and self-consciously effete. Which loops us right back to the poem.

One of my favorite short stories,"A&P," is by Updike. You can find it here:

Heres a good Updike quote on aging: " Now that I am sixty, I see why the idea of elder wisdom has passed from currency."

And another: "I recently read Vanity Fair at long last. Here I am, 70-odd years old, and I never read Vanity Fair! In a way that is the most enjoyable, when you put yourself to school with an old classic."

And one more: "I did write a lot of light verse, and even some verse that wasn't too light. Even I knew there was no living in being a poet, so fiction was the game."


  1. I was thinking about poetry (engaged in an Ogden Nash quote-off with a friend online) and thought of this poem, which brought me to your blog. I tend to agree with your comments; I did a paper on Updike in 1963 for a teacher who thought American Lit began and ended with Hawthorne and Melville, and can't help feeling vindicated that he's now acknowledged as a Great American Writer. I was Deep. :)

  2. What are we to make of these appearances of signs in the novels? For one thing, Updike is obviously including them in these fictions as part of his desire to present real slices of life from late twentieth century American society – what it is/was like to live in this time, in this place