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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Number 170: John Updike "Perfection Wasted"

Perfection Wasted

And another regrettable thing about death

is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,

which took a whole life to develop and market —

the quips, the witticisms, the slant

adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest

the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched

in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,

their tears confused with their diamond earrings,

their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,

their response and your performance twinned.

The jokes over the phone. The memories packed

in the rapid-access file. The whole act.

Who will do it again? That's it: no one;

imitators and descendants aren't the same.

-- John Updike

Hap Notes: Frost, Hopkins and Keats have gotten a lot of space since we started talking about poetry in December but Updike is an up-and-comer. This is our fourth Updike authored poem and there's a fifth if we count his Borges translation. And I still have several more I'd like to use at some point. It dawns on me that my claim to any slight literary fame may be that I have been adamant that Updike is a poet who disguised himself as a novelist so that he could make a living. In a hundred years or so, Updike may be remembered more for his poetry than his novels (which will be considered like slices of a bygone era.)

Updike is saying something very interesting about the way people act with their familiar loved ones; friends, family, well-wishers, fans etc. as well as our interactions with the world. He says we "adjust the slant" of what we say to talk, amuse and sometimes amaze. It's well put. We all become "marketers" of our own "act" and bend and shape our words and jokes and snappy patter to please those around us. It would seem ingenuous, and typical of a guy who said that there was no money in poetry so he turned to fiction except one thing stands out in all this. It's his phrase "your own brand of magic."

Because in amidst all this joking and anecdotal sharing and revising, trying to please people, enamored of their applause and grateful acceptance, there is something beyond just a tap dance and pulling a rabbit out of a hat. There is real magic inside of him and you and even me.

That's why nobody can imitate or replicate. If it was just an "act" then anybody could do it just like you do. If someone who looked like you did each and every thing you did in an exact replication of your moves, your words, your facial expressions and gestures, it would still be lacking some quality of perfect mimicry. It's your magical something. And the magic has a bit to do with both the speaker and the responders- that pooled warm breath, the sparkling responses, their heartbeats; the way it all mixes together just so. It cannot be replicated.

Life isn't an experiment- each time we do something there are variables that change the results. One can't explain how each and every person will react every time. Updike is right- it's more of an "act." That's what Shakespeare thought, too (that whole life is but a stage and we poor players and so on.) We play out our lives in front of our "audience" in the world. What is deep inside you, that ineffable spark or flame or, okay, magic– remains with you. You'll never get it all out no matter what you do. We are never ending waterfalls of strange magics.

I don't know what it is exactly, this magical (dare we say "divine') spark, and Updike doesn't either but it's poets who see it there most vividly and keep trying to explain it. They're always giving it a good go; for centuries they've been having one hell of a time describing it.

This is a very thoughtful poem even on the surface. Updike chose the word "magic" with all the illusions and illusive qualities that surround it but the word resonates to each of us differently. So you can see yourself as a phony-baloney vaudeville magician or tap dancer or comedian and, yeah, there's only one of you, big deal, and there's an end to it. But WHY is there only one of you in a world filled with billions of other creatures with your same cell structure in the same species? How can that be?

Some poets call it magic.

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

1 comment:

  1. In the early twentieth century, in his series of lectures entitled Pragmatism, the philosopher and psychologist William James advanced the thesis that, broadly speaking, people can be separated into two general categories of personality – tough minded and tender minded.