Friday, July 31, 2015

`As Big, Perhaps, as Four Oxen'

Handicapping literary reputations is a mug’s game but if I were calculating John Updike’s odds, I’d bet on a handful of his stories, reviews and poems – especially the poems. Leave the novels alone, as readers and critics seldom did during his lifetime. Updike’s first book, The Carpentered Hen (1958), was a collection of poems, and he published seven more. In his review of Collected Poems 1953-1993, Tom Disch acknowledged an obvious truth, one he knew from hard experience: “Updike enjoys such pre-eminence as a novelist that his poetry could be mistaken as a hobby or a foible.” Disch went on to celebrate unfashionable dedication to form: “It is a poetry of civility—in its epigrammatical lucidity.” The same is true of Disch, whose poetry easily eclipses his fiction. Theirs is a poetry of wit. In his Collected Poems, Updike distinguishes between poetry and light verse, and prints them separately. In his preface he formulates the difference:

“My principle of segregation has been that a poem derives from the real (the real, the substantial) world and light verse from the man-made world of information—books, newspapers, words, signs. If a set of lines brought back to me something I actually saw or felt, it was not light verse. If it took its spark from language and stylized signifiers, it was.”

Take “The Menagerie at Versailles in 1775,” from his second book of verse, Telephone Poles and Other Poems (1963). Updike rightly classifies it as light verse, though an earlier generation might have judged it an act of avant-garde audacity. In his notes, Updike describes it as a "found poem" drawn from Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the passage for Oct. 22, 1775. Boswell quotes prose notes kept by Johnson when visiting the French court’s zoo. Updike lineates the prose and revises the punctuation. Otherwise, it’s Johnson verbatim. There’s a poignancy to the passage that Updike may or may not have been aware of. Here’s Johnson:  

“Rhinoceros, the horn broken and pared away, which, I suppose, will grow; the basis, I think, four inches across; the skin folds like loose cloth doubled over his body; and cross his hips; a vast animal, though young; as big, perhaps, as four oxen.”

In his Dictionary, Johnson defines rhinoceros as “a vast beast in the East Indies armed with a horn in his front.” You can quibble with his geography but the definition is typically pithy and common-sensical. In his notebook passage, I detect a muted sympathy for the de-horned beast. Johnson’s ungainly appearance and deportment are often remarked upon. For Europeans of the eighteenth century, a rhinoceros was a monstrous, frightening freak of nature. You’ll find none of that in Johnson’s brief account. Look at this passage in Boswell, dated May 17, 1775:

“I passed many hours with him on the 17th, of which I find all my memorial is, `much laughing.’ It should seem he had that day been in a humour for jocularity and merriment, and upon such occasions I never knew a man laugh more heartily. We may suppose, that the high relish of a state so different from his habitual gloom, produced more than ordinary exertions of that distinguishing faculty of man, which has puzzled philosophers so much to explain. Johnson’s laugh was as remarkable as any circumstance in his manner. It was a kind of good humoured growl. Tom Davies described it drolly enough: `He laughs like a rhinoceros.’”

1 comment:

Gary said...

Updike's Selected Poems comes out in October.