Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike

John Updike, 1932 - 2009

John Updike died of lung cancer on January 27. I remember reading about the young Updike in Time Magazine back in the 1960's. I was struck by his distinctive facial profile and the fact that he had studied art before turning to writing. I read my first Updike novel when I was in the Peace Corps. His novel Of the Farm was included in my Peace Corps book locker--a varied collection of about 40 fiction and nonfiction books given to each volunteer. There were two or three versions of the booklocker, so I sometimes swapped good books with other volunteers when we met. I was hooked on Updike and read him intermittently from then on, especially savoring each of the four Rabbit books when they came out, decade by decade. I always thought his poetry was underrated partly because it was eclipsed by his fiction (and criticism) but also because he mostly wrote light verse, though it was very good light verse. Some scenes and images from his work have stayed with me. Somewhere, he describes a flock of birds as "a drunken fingerprint in the sky" or something like that. I saw Updike at the University of South Carolina several years ago when USC's Don Greiner, a longtime Updike collector, honored the writer with a large display in the library Rare Books Room. I have the poster commemorating that occasion.

John Updike page at Poetry Foundation Site

Friday, January 23, 2009

Elizabeth Alexander's Inaugural Poem

Here is the original poem Elizabeth Alexander read at Obama's inauguration, downloaded from the Academy of American Poets website (

Praise Song for the Day
A Poem for Barack Obama's Presidential Inauguration

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other's
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what's on the other side.

I know there's something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.
Alexander's poem conveys a cluster of admirable sentiments: that even people performing ordinary tasks are worthy, that some have died doing their jobs, that love of others--even those unlike us--is praiseworthy, and that the day holds many possibilities. The poem ends on praise for "walking forward," but I'm afraid the poem is pedestrian in other ways as well. Despite several crisp, effective snapshots, the poem tries to be too encompassing, too inclusive--the perennial trap of commemorative verse.

None of the previous four inaugural poems have been especially memorable. At Kennedy's inauguration, Robert Frost intended to read "Dedication" but fortuitously couldn't see the text because of the sun's glare. So he recited from memory the far superior and appropriate poem, "The Gift Outright." "The Strength of Fields," James Dickey's poem for Jimmy Carter (read at the "inaugural gala" at Lincoln Center rather than at the inauguration itself) was not bad, though by no means one of his best. The contorted syntax and occasional obscurity of the language must have left the audience puzzled--though at his best, Dickey was a strong reader and might have brought it off by sheer force of personality.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Two Films: Special Effects

I've recently seen The Dark Knight and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. While I'm not generally a fan of superhero movies (related to my lack of interest in comic books?), I found The Dark Knight thoroughly entertaining--much moreso than, say, Iron Man, which seemed to me primarily a showpiece for explosions and special effects, none of which seemed so special in today's "anything is possible" cinema. While the supporting cast (Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart) is strong, the diabolical Heath Ledger makes the whole thing work for me. He's a shoo-in for an Oscar, and not just because of the posthumour sympathy vote.

I found the special effects in Benjamin Button much more astonishing than the pyrotechnic, gravity-defying visuals in any superhero movie. The morphing of Brad Pitt from old man newborn to mature adult to young heartthrob and on to ancient baby was more marvelous to me than anything in The Dark Knight or Iron Man. I like any film that has an air of realism and an utterly impossible premise but makes us believe it to be possible. This is what happens in Benjamin Button. I began by wondering how you could possibly make such a concept work. But the filmmakers succeed--again largely because of a strong supporting cast, notably the always intriguing Cate Blanchett and the surprise of Tariji P. Henson (deservedly nominated for best supporting actress).
In his Harvard photography course, Robin Kelsey views photography as a “hybrid medium” that is both a simple, automatic trace of reality and an intentional composition that fits the Western pictorial tradition.
Coldfront Magazine: The year's best poetry
Rave review of Jackson Bate's new book about Shakespeare
What's happening to reading?
Hua Hsu in The Atlantic: "The End of White America"