Ode to Updike

Sharing pages with a lost legend

Daniel Rohn 8 February 2009

Updike in 1995 (Doug Elbinger, Elbinger Studios)

When we were moving forty-six years later, I found my poem and winced

John Updike died last month. At my age you become very conscious of what is happening to those who were born the same year as you. In 1949 I thought I was a poet, and entered a national high school poetry contest sponsored by the National Poetry Society. One of my poems was chosen for their national anthology, Songs of Youth, published in 1950. My father was lying on a hospital bed in our dining room dying, and my poem, very turgid, ended with:

what will happen to this man.
Stooping, slumping, sleeping – DEATH.
The cold, brooding, silent, still night covers all.

You get the picture.

When we were moving from Ohio to Colorado forty-six years later and I was throwing things out, I found that book, found my poem, and winced. I was idly going through the pages, and towards the end the name John Updike leaped from the page, from Elverson, Pennsylvania (the town next to Plowville, where he was living at that time). I then read the poem, and knew it could only be by the John Updike:


The comma, seen, of late, but rarely,
Was butchered, the grammarian claims,
By authors, hard of heart, who, barely,
Aped the master, Henry James.

It seems our literlites have pondered
And found that for equality
The period too should now be squandered
Not singly but in groups of three…

(The word 'literlites' may be a printer's error – it could be 'literalists'). It is said about Updike's formative years that he liked and was influenced by the works of Ogden Nash. Upon reading his high school poem, I understood why he became a great literary figure and I did not.