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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Number 139: John Updike "Sunflower"


Sunflower, of flowers

the most lonely,

yardstick of hours,

long-term stander

in empty spaces,

shunner of bowers,

indolent bender

seldom, in only

the sharpest of showers:

tell us, why

is it your face is

a snarl of jet swirls

and gold arrows, a burning

old lion face high

in a cornflower sky,

yet by turning

your head we find

you wear a girl's

bonnet behind?

--John Updike

Hap Notes: It's possible I may be the only person in the world kvetching about John Updike spending so much time writing novels and not enough writing poetry. He's dead for heaven's sake and I'm still miffed at him. His natural ear and pacing is perfect for poetry. He's a potentially a great poet. He knew there was no money in it and chose fiction writing. We all have to make choices, eh?

Maybe that's what I'm mad about– not that he wanted money– that there is not much money to be had in writing poetry. First, somebody has to take your verses seriously. You have to give readings. Many folks will peer at you suspiciously for choosing poetry as a calling; why not architecture or basket weaving? You know, something functional. Then of course, you'll need grants – your books won't exactly fly off the shelves. People will expect poetry to fall out of you all the time. It's a scrappy life, even when you're famous. (Feel free to use these excuses about your own poetic output- I certainly have.)

This spiny poem about the sunflower tells us something about people, too, because we mirror the natural world in which we live. Their leaves and buds do measure the hours, by the way, and follow the sun in its travels across the sky, hence their name. This following of the sun is called heliotropism and mature sunflowers don't do it- they usually face east. Here's an interesting factoid: the sunflower has a slightly more complicated and longer genome (an organism's genetic heredity info found in DNA/RNA) than human beings.

Sunflowers, by the way, are so useful. They are great producers of seeds favored by people and animals and birds. The seeds produce sunflower oil. The sunflower head, after the seeds have dropped off are used for cattle feed. Sunflowers produce a kind of latex that can be used to make a "greener" rubber. When planted, they can suck toxic ingredients out of the soil. Sunflowers were planted at a pond near Chernobyl to extract nuclear waste chemicals (which ones? cesium-137 and strontium-90 – impressive, huh?)

Oh, and they are quite beautiful in all their gold and yellow splendor. If you have a few in your yard, you know that they always look as if they are nodding at you pleasantly in a light wind.

Back to the poem– a lion face in a girl's bonnet is a pretty good description, don't you think? The more I read the poem the sadder I am about Updike's lack of poetic output. So there. Still holding a grudge against something– let's say it's money.

Here's where we've talked about Updike before:

and here:


  1. Tracking John Updike's Foot Fetish.
    This is only scratching the surface! Some quotes from six of Updike's fifty odd books.He kneels to comply. Annoyed at such ready compliance, which implies pleasure, she stiffens her feet and kicks so her toenails stab his cheek, dangerously near his eyes.

  2. He kneels to comply. Annoyed at such ready compliance, which implies pleasure, she stiffens her feet and kicks so her toenails stab his cheek, dangerously near his eyes.He pins her ankles to continue his kissing. Slightly doughy, matronly ankles. Green veins on her insteps. Nice remembered locker room taste. Cheap vanilla.