Mar. 18, 2003

In Extremis

by John Updike

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Poem: "In Extremis," by John Updike from Collected Poems 1953-1993 (Alfred A. Knopf).

In Extremis

I saw my toes the other day.
I hadn't looked at them for months.
Indeed, they might have passed away.
And yet they were my best friends once.
When I was small, I knew them well.
I counted on them up to ten
And put them in my mouth to tell
The larger from the lesser. Then
I loved them better than my ears,
My elbows, adenoids, and heart.
But with the swelling of the years
We drifted, toes and I, apart.
Now, gnarled and pale, each said, j'accuse!--
I hid them quickly in my shoes.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, born in Paris (1842). Mallarmé was the chief proponent of the Symbolist movement. Many poets and writers of the mid-1880s drew inspiration from the Tuesday evening gatherings where Mallarmé expounded on his theories. He believed that the purpose of poetry is to create ideal forms, unsullied by any contact with reality. He said his aim was to perceive -- beyond the real flower -- the ideal flower that can never be found in this world.

It's the birthday of American author John Updike, born in Shillington, Pennsylvania (1932). His family moved to a farm when he was thirteen, so he and his father -- who was a high-school math teacher -- had to commute daily into town for school. The isolation Updike felt on the farm fueled a desire to escape his life. He escaped first through cartoons and fiction in The New Yorker, and then by winning a scholarship to Harvard. He later joined the staff at The New Yorker, but left to concentrate on his writing. A prolific writer of poetry, short stories, and essays, Updike is best known for his novels, in particular the four Rabbit books, which began with the classic Rabbit Run (1961). Updike said, "The character of Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom was for me a way in -- a ticket to the America all around me. [The four novels] became a running report on the state of my hero and his nation." Rabbit Run begins,

Boys playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it. Legs, shouts. The scrape and snap of Keds on loose alley pebbles seems to catapult their voices high into the moist March air blue above wires. Rabbit Angstrom, coming up the alley in a business suit, stops and watches, though he's twenty-six and six three. So tall, he seems an unlikely rabbit, but the breadth of white face, the pallor of his blue irises, and a nervous flutter under his brief nose as he stabs a cigarette into his mouth partially explain the nickname, which was given to him as a boy. He stands there thinking, the kids keep coming, they keep crowding you up.

Updike said: "Writers take words seriously-perhaps the last professional class that does-and they struggle to steer their own through the crosswinds of meddling editors and careless typesetters and obtuse and malevolent reviewers into the lap of the ideal reader."

It's the birthday of Wilfred Owen, English poet and soldier, born in Oswestry, Shropshire, England (1893). He is considered the foremost poet who wrote during and about World War I. In 1915 Owen enlisted in the British army. In the first letters he wrote home to his mother, Owen sounded optimistic and said he had a "fine, heroic feeling about being in France." But a year and a half later, he was writing his mother about a cold march through flooded trenches, where soldiers who got stuck in the heavy mud had to leave their waders and move ahead on bleeding, freezing feet. Owen wrote about this cold march, which ended with an attack of poisonous gas, in his famous poem, "Dulce et Decorum Est:" Owen wrote nearly all of his poems over one year, from August 1917 to September 1918 including "Anthem for Doomed Youth" and "The End." In June 1917, Owen was wounded and sent home to England. Despite the efforts of his friends to find him a staff job, he returned to France and was killed in action on November 4th, 1918, one week before Armistice Day.

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