Sunday, February 01, 2009

Sunday Poetry: Saying Goodbye to Very Young Children, by John Updike

Saying Goodbye to Very Young Children

They will not be the same next time. The sayings
so cute, just slightly off, will be corrected.
Their eyes will be more skeptical, plugged in
the more securely to the worldly buzz
of television, alphabet, and street talk,
culture polluting their gazes' pure blue.
It makes you see at last the value of
those boring aunts and neighbors (their smells
of summer sweat and cigarettes, their faces
like shapes of sky between shade-giving leaves)
who knew you from the start, when you were zero,
cooing their nothings before you could be bored
or knew a name, not even your own, or how
this world brave with hellos turns all goodbye.

- by John Updike

If you knew me very well, you would have expected me to focus on "Ex-Basketball Player", a poem many of us encountered in high school. It's a fine poem, and lines like "His hands are fine and nervous on the lug wrench./It makes no difference to the lug wrench, though" and "His hands were like wild birds" have stayed in my memory for 30+ years, taking up space that could be used for other things like siblings' birthdays or how long to boil an egg. That's okay, though - poetry is best when it slips into your mind when you don't even know you need it, and I can look the other stuff up.

"Saying Goodbye to Very Young Children", however, caught my eye as I was reading some of Updike's poetry. He captures a phenomenon I've subconsciously noticed but never would have articulated. Children begin losing their innocence so soon - as soon as they begin gathering information. If according to recapitulation theory "ontogeny is a brief recapitulation of phylogeny", Updike may be creating a moral theory under which a child's gathering of information is a brief recapitulation of the expulsion from Eden.

So, Updike recognizes the value of the chroniclers, those aunts who knew us when we were zero. In so much of his work, Updike was exactly that - a chronicler of the decline of innocence. Rabbit Angstrom begins with a thoughtless kind of innocence, as did Piet in Couples. In Updike's novels, though, the decline of thoughtless innocence is a necessary part of moral growth - in this far briefer poem, it is something sadder.

Once the child begins learning names, and developing his or her own identity, "this world brave with hellos turns all goodbye". I hope that some of those saying goodbye to Mr. Updike will say a brave hello to some of his poetry.

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Blogger Muddy Mo said...

I had not contemplated Updike's passing until I read your post. I read all four Rabbit Angstrom novels and several others, but very litte Updike poetry.

I started but never finished his novel, "Towards the End of Time", but I will always remember a particular passage in the first chapter which dealt with the protagonist's pre-dawn scramble on to his porch, armed with a gun and a plan to fulfill his wife's desire that he fire a warning shot at a deer that had been regularly munching on her precious hedges. After failing to take a shot at the deer and receiving a vicious verbal scourging from his wife when he explained that he did not want to wake the neighbors:

"I noticed, uttering this remark, a certain oddity within myself, a displacement of empathy: I could empathize with the sleeping neighbors and the starving deer but not with my frantic wife and her helpless hedge. "That euonymus hedge," she amplified when I voiced this perception by way of apology, "can't run or hide; it can only stand there and be eaten."

Just as she, I thought, was helpless to do anything but attempt to direct and motivate me: ferocious female nagging is the price men pay for our much-lamented prerogatives, the power and the mobility and the penis."

2/01/2009 5:52 PM  

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