Mar. 18, 2004

The Sometime Sportsman Greets the Spring

by John Updike

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Poem: "The Sometime Sportsman Greets the Spring," by John Updike, from Collected Poems, 1953-1993 (Knopf).

The Sometime Sportsman Greets the Spring

When winter's glaze is lifted from the greens,
And cups are freshly cut, and birdies sing,
Triumphantly the stifled golfer preens
In cleats and slacks once more, and checks his swing.

This year, he vows, his head will steady be,
His weight-shift smooth, his grip and stance ideal;
And so they are, until upon the tee
Befall the old contortions of the real.

So, too, the tennis-player, torpid from
Hibernal months of television sports,
Perfects his serve and feels his knees become
Sheer muscle in their unaccustomed shorts.

Right arm relaxed, the left controls the toss,
Which shall be high, so that the racket face
Shall at a certain angle sweep across
The floated sphere with gutty strings--an ace!

The mind's eye sees it all until upon
The courts of life the faulty way we played
In other summers rolls back with the sun.
Hope springs eternally, but spring hopes fade.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of John Updike, born in Shillington, Pennsylvania (1932). He's a prolific writer and the author of many collections of short stories and novels, including The Centaur (1963), Of the Farm (1965), Marry Me (1976) and Roger's Version (1986). He grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, where he was an only child and suffered from hay fever, psoriasis, and a bad stammer. He took refuge in writing in drawing. His family subscribed to The New Yorker magazine, and when it came to the house each week, he would pore over the articles and stories and cartoons. First he wanted to become a cartoonist for The New Yorker, and then he decided that he wanted to be a writer for the magazine. He went to Harvard, where he edited the Harvard Lampoon, and he published his first short story in The New Yorker the year he graduated.

He moved to New York City so he could work for The New Yorker full-time, and he wrote light verse, stories, and "Talk of the Town" articles. He had wanted to live in New York and write for The New Yorker his entire life, but after a couple of years there he discovered that he didn't like the competitiveness of the literary scene, so he moved with his family to Ipswich, a small town in Massachusetts. His first book was published the following year—a collection of poems called The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures (1958). That was followed by his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair (1959), about a fair held by the elderly residents of a poorhouse.

Updike's first big success was the novel Rabbit, Run (1960), which tells the story of a man named Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. He's in his mid-twenties and lives in the suburbs, his wife is an alcoholic, he's not happy with his job, he's scared of the responsibility of raising a family, he finds himself pining for the days when he was a high school basketball star—and so one day he just runs away. Updike went on to write three more "Rabbit" novels, following Rabbit's life through the course of the second half of the twentieth century—Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990). His latest novel, Seek My Face (2002), was published two years ago.

Updike said, "I'm willing to show good taste, if I can, in somebody else's living room, but our reading life is too short for a writer to be in any way polite. Since his words enter into another's brain in silence and intimacy, he should be as honest and explicit as we are with ourselves."

It's the birthday of poet Stéphane Mallarmé, born in Paris (1842). He was one of the leaders of the Symbolist movement in poetry, whose members wrote poems around a central image, or symbol. He was an anglophile, and as a young man all he wanted to do was teach English to French students. Then, in 1861, he came across Charles Baudelaire's collection of poems, The Flowers of Evil. He fell in love with the rhythm of the lines and the beauty of the words, and he set out to write poetry himself. He was known for spending years on his poems, revising them until he thought they were almost perfect, and so he ended up publishing only a few books of poetry in his lifetime. His best-known work is The Afternoon of a Faun (1865), which presents the thoughts of a faun on a beautiful summer afternoon. It inspired a tone poem by Claude Debussy and a painting by Edouard Manet.

It's the birthday of Wilfred Owen, born in Shropshire, England (1893). He's known for his poems about the violence and cruelty of war, and he was killed while fighting in World War I. Just four days before Owens died, he knew the war was coming to a close. The Germans were in full retreat and the French had joyfully welcomed the British troops. Owens wrote in a letter to his mother, "It is a great life. I am more oblivious than yourself . . . of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, and the hollow crashing of the shells. Of this I am certain: you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here." He was killed by enemy fire a few days later, on November 4, 1918, just a week before the end of World War I.

It's the birthday of George Plimpton, born in New York City (1927). He was the son of a diplomat and went to college at Harvard, where he edited the humor magazine, the Lampoon. He went to Paris in the spring of 1952, staying in a small apartment and living the life of a bohemian. Along with his friends Harold Humes, Peter Matthiessen, Thomas Guinzburg, and Donald Hall, he founded the literary magazine The Paris Review. Most small literary journals at the time focused on criticism and reviews, but Plimpton wanted The Paris Review to be filled with poems and short stories by young, upcoming writers. It was the first magazine to publish stories by Philip Roth, Terry Southern, and Samuel Beckett. It also published fiction by writers like Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence when their work was still considered obscene in America. Plimpton continued to edit The Paris Review from his apartment in Manhattan up until his death last year.

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