You can define poetry in many ways. You can focus its form, its content, its language, its purposes or its differences from prose. Or you can define it as John Updike — the poet, novelist and critic — did in Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism. He said that poetry is “the exercise of language at its highest pitch.”
April 4, 2012
March 30, 2010
John Updike’s ‘Seven Stanzas at Easter’ Answers the Question, How Should Christians Talk About the Resurrection?
A novelist makes the case against turning the event into a parable
“Seven Stanzas at Easter.” A poem by John Updike. From Collected Poems: 1953–1993, Knopf, 387 pp., $27.50.
By Janice Harayda
As a young writer, John Updike submitted “Seven Stanzas at Easter” to a religious arts festival at the Lutheran church he attended on the North Shore of Massachusetts. He won the “Best in Show” award for the poem and returned his $100 prize to the congregation.
Fifty years later, “Seven Stanzas at Easter” has become perhaps the most famous Easter poem of the second half of the 20th century. In some ways, its popularity is surprising. The modified-envelope rhymes of the poem are subtle enough that you might miss them. The seven stanzas might invoke any of many Christian associations with the number seven — the days of Holy Week, the gifts of the spirit, the sayings of Christ on the cross — but it isn’t clear which. And all of the 35 lines in the poem deal with a question that can make Christians squeamish: How should we talk about the Resurrection?
Updike speaks directly to the reader from the first stanza onward:
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit,
the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
The poem goes on to reject the idea of talking about the Resurrection in literary tropes that mask or deny the corporal realities of the Crucifixion:
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
making of the event a parable …
“Seven Stanzas at Easter” is about the body of Christ in more than one sense, and its theme appears unambiguous: In for a dime, in for a dollar; if you talk about the Resurrection, you can’t turn it into a Jungian projection of a collective unconscious. But it’s a mistake to read “Seven Stanzas at Easter” a tract. The poem doesn’t weigh the historical or theological evidence for or against the Resurrection. It less about what happened or didn’t happen at the tomb than about how to talk about it. And its message is more equivocal than Job’s “I know that my redeemer liveth.”
Updike tips his hand with the “if” in his first line: “Make no mistake: if He rose at all.” That “if” modifies all that follows and turns the poem into a variation on Pascal’s wager, the idea that although the existence of God can’t be proved, a person should live as though it could be, because that position has all the advantages. Updike tells us to avoid sanitizing the Resurrection for our own comfort or because we can’t otherwise conceive of it. To mythologize the event, he warns, is to being “awakened in one unthinkable hour” and find that “we are embarrassed / by the miracle, / and crushed by remonstrance.”
In the first quotation above, the line beginning “the amino acids” should be indented six spaces, which this template won’t allow. The full text of “Seven Stanzas at Easter” appears on the site for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, where some lines break in different places than they do in Collected Poems. The Lutheran recounts how Updike submitted to the poem to the Religious Arts Festival at Clifton Lutheran Church in Marblehead, Massachusetts.
You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.
© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
December 26, 2009
Do poets have trouble finding rhymes for “hangover”? Or believe that all kids go to bed early on Dec. 31? For whatever reason, there are few good children’s New Year’s Day, compared with the many about Christmas, Thanksgiving and other major holidays. But John Updike wrote a lovely poem about January that appears in his A Child’s Calendar (Holiday House, 32 pp., ages 4-8), and in The Random House Book of Poetry for Children (Random House, 248 pp., $22.99, ages 12 and under), selected by Jack Prelutsky. “January” doesn’t mention the New Year but celebrates the month with rhyming iambic quatrains: “The days are short, / The sun a spark / Hung thin between / The dark and dark.” The Random House Book of Poetry for Children also includes Sara Coleridge’s poem “The Months,” which has 12 rhyming couplets, one for each month, that begin: “January brings the snow, / makes our feet and fingers glow.”
This post first appeared on Dec. 28, 2008. You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
October 7, 2009
Late Night With Jan Harayda — Why Amos Oz, Herta Müller or Philip Roth Could Win the Nobel Prize in Literature Tomorrow
Update at 10:20 a.m. Oct. 8, 2009: Herta Müller has won the Nobel Prize. Here’s a link to the AP story on the award from Stockholm.
First, the Nobel Prize in literature does not honor “the world’s best writer.” The guidelines say that the award must go to a writer whose work has an “idealistic tendency,” or fosters the good of humanity. The Swedish Academy has interpreted that mandate broadly: It has often honored writers, such as Toni Morrison, who have spoken out against injustice rather than those whose work is uncritically altruistic.
Within that framework, here are a few reasons why the prize might go tomorrow to Amoz Oz, Philip Roth or Herta Müller, all ranked among the five most popular with bettors by the odds-maker Ladbrokes:
1. Amos Oz and Philip Roth: Both novelists have been considered strong candidates for years. In 2008 the Swedish Academy gave out the Nobel Prize in literature on Yom Kippur, when observant Jews do not work. And the judges could have faced accusations of religious insensitivity if they had honored Oz, an Israeli, or Roth, an American Jew, then, because the award would have forced the winner to choose between observing the holiday and giving interviews to the media (or even accepting a work-related phone call from Stockholm). Another factor that could favor Roth: Some critics believe that the Swedish Academy screwed the late John Updike — at the time of his death, the best all-around writer in the United States — perhaps because of anti-Americanism. I would not put it that strongly, in part because the Nobel Prize has always had a strong if unofficial geographic-distribution policy, which compels the judges to spread the awards out around the world. But I still hold the view that I expressed on this site before Updike died: “If Updike lived in Greenland, he would have had the Nobel Prize decades ago.”
2. Herta Müller: Müller is a Romanian-born resident of Germany whose work takes a “brutally honest look at life in communist Romania,” M.A. Orthofer wrote over at the Complete Review. And in recent decades, the Swedish Academy has seemed to favor such uncompromising stances. Orthofer lists other reasons why Müller could win (and why she might not), all of them plausible, at the blog the Literary Saloon. Don’t miss his comments if you’re interested in the politics of the prize or if a victory by Müller leaves you shaking your head.
The Nobel Prize in literature will be announced in a live Webcast from Stockholm at 6 a.m. Eastern Time (11 a.m. GMT and 1 p.m. CET) on Thursday, October 8.
June 20, 2009
John Updike celebrates the Fourth in the spirited children’s poem “July,” which begins: “Bang-bang! Ka-boom! / We celebrate / Our national / Independence date.” The poem is one of 12, one for each month, collected in A Child’s Calendar (Holiday House, 32 pages, $17.95 hardcover, $6.95 paperback, ages 4–8). Beautifully illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, this picture book won a Caldecott Honor for its images of four seasons in the life of members of an interracial New England family and their friends. Don’t miss Updike tending the barbecue grill in the full-page picture next to the poem.
April 11, 2009
Robinson, Updike or Roth Will Win the 2009 Pulitzer for Fiction, Statistical Analysis Shows — But Don’t Count on It
I’m on record as saying that the frontrunner for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction would seem to be Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy, which I haven’t read. Morrison is the only Nobel Prize–winner in the hunt. And I think it’s going to be tough for the judges to pass over a laureate, although the National Book Critics Circle board did it in March.
But a research scientist and a book collector have reached a different conclusion by using regression analysis, a statistical technique for evaluating variables. The two say that the books most likely to win the 2009 fiction prize are Marilynne Robinson’s Home, John Updike’s The Widows of Eastwick, and Philip Roth’s Indignation. They’ve also identified the 12 other candidates that, based on their analysis, are most like to win, all listed in order at PPrize.com. You can read their 2008 predictions — and how they fared — on the same site. The Pulitzer Prizes honor books in five categories — fiction, poetry, history, biography, and general nonfiction — and will be announced on Monday, April 20, at 3 p.m. Eastern Time.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
December 28, 2008
Do poets have trouble finding rhymes for “hangover”? Or believe that all kids go to bed early on Dec. 31? For whatever reason, there are few good children’s New Year’s Day, compared with the many about Christmas, Thanksgiving and other major holidays.
But John Updike has written a lovely poem about January that appears in his A Child’s Calendar (Holiday House, 32 pp., ages 4-8), and in The Random House Book of Poetry for Children (Random House, 248 pp., $22.99, ages 12 and under), selected by Jack Prelutsky. “January” doesn’t mention the New Year and instead celebrates the charms of the month with rhyming iambic quatrains: “The days are short, / The sun a spark / Hung thin between / The dark and dark.” The Random House Book of Poetry for Children also includes Sara Coleridge’s poem “The Months,” which consists of 12 rhyming couplets, one for each month, that begin: “January brings the snow, / makes our feet and fingers glow.”
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
November 28, 2008
John Updike doesn’t use the word Christmas in “December,” a 16-line rhyming poem collected in the Caldecott Honor book A Child’s Calendar (Holiday House, 32 pages, $17.95 hardcover, $6.95 paperback, ages 4–8), beautifully illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. But the spirit of the day shines in lines like: “The shepherds wait, / The kings, the tree – “ / All wait for something / Yet to be.” “December” uses mainly words of one- or two-syllables – the publisher recommends it for first graders – so it would suit children who are starting to read on their own as well as younger ones.
Updike writes in iambic meter – the closest to natural speech – instead of the galloping anapests and dactyls so often found in rhymes for the very young. Partly for that reason, “December” has a more subdued tone than many poems about the season. But it’s so thoughtful, it might appeal to children older than 8 if you can get them to pick up picture book. A big if, but worth the effort if you’re looking for a good poem about December that doesn’t mention Santa Claus or reindeer. The Christmas tree in the illustration for it has a Star of David on it, so this one may appeal to interfaith families. holidayhouse.com/title_display.php?ISBN=978082341445
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
November 25, 2008
Rachel Johnson also wins for a scene from Shire Hell “that begins with moans and nibbles and works up to screaming and other animal noises”
John Updike has won a special lifetime achievement award from the judges of the 2008 Bad Sex in Fiction Prize, given annually by the U.K. literary magazine the Literary Review. Here’s the AP story on the award www.kvoa.com/Global/story.asp?S=9412980&nav=HMO6HMaf. Updike has been nominated four times for the prize, this year for his novel The Widows of Eastwick.
The AP article doesn’t say whether the judges singled out any passages in giving Updike the award, which recognizes crude, tasteless and often gratuitous sex scenes in works that otherwise have literary merit. So I’ll repeat what I said yesterday in noting that Updike had been nominated: “Let’s face it – it’s a miracle that he has never won a Bad Sex award, given that this man created the lecherous Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, who made a pass at his daughter-in-law on his deathbed.”
James Pressley of Bloomberg.com reports that Rachel Johnson, the sister of London mayor Boris Johnson, is also a winner. She received the 2008 Bad Sex in Fiction Prize “for a scene in Shire Hell that begins with moans and nibbles and works up to screaming and other animal noises” www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601088&sid=a_G4Db0hO7Z8&refer=home. Pressley’s article is longer and has more information on the other candidates than the AP story.
(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
November 24, 2008
John Updike Makes 2008 Bad Sex in Fiction Award Shortlist for ‘The Widows of Eastwick’ – Russell Banks Also a Finalist — Curtis Sittenfeld’s ‘American Wife’ Spared
John Updike’s The Widows of Eastwick has made the shortlist for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award given by the U.K. magazine the Literary Review. Among books by Americans, Russell Banks’s The Reserve is also finalist for the annual prize, launched to recognize and discourage crude, tasteless and often gratuitous sex scenes in modern novels that otherwise have literary merit.
The judges spared Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, which some critics have derided for its unintentionally comical sex scenes involving characters resembling George and Laura Bush. But they shortlisted Brida by the Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho, whose The Alchemist has been an American bestseller.
I admire much of the work of John Updike, particularly his poetry and literary criticism, and stand my recent comment that if Updike lived in Greenland, he would have had a Nobel Prize years ago. But – let’s face it – it’s a miracle that he has never won a Bad Sex award, given that this man created the lecherous Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, who made a pass at his daughter-in-law on his deathbed. And I regard Russell Banks as one of America’s most overrated writers, so his nomination doesn’t test my startle reflect, either.
The Literary Review will award the Bad Sex prizes tomorrow night, and the meantime you can read about them at www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/nov/20/bad-sex-award-fiction. A victory by Updike or Banks would be the second award to an American in two years: Norman Mailer won posthumously in 2007 for The Castle in the Forest. Check back late tomorrow afternoon if you’re interested in the results.
You may also want to read the following 2007 posts on One-Minute Book Reviews:
“Ian McEwan Makes Longlist for Bad Sex in Fiction Award as Expected” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/23.
“’Sex in Ian McEwan’s Novel Is Not Bad Enough to Impress the Judges’” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/27/.
“Read All the Passages Shortlisted for the 2007 Bad Sex in Fiction Award Here” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/28/.
And this one from earlier 2008:
“Late Night With Jan Harayda – Is Curtis Sittenfeld Courting a Bad Sex in Fiction Award?” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/09/24/.
The Literary Review does not post the shortlist on its Web site www.literaryreview.co.uk.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.