John Updike



The days are short,
The sun a spark,
Hung thin between
The dark and dark.

Fat snowy footsteps
Track the floor.
Milk bottles burst
Outside the door.

The river is
A frozen place
Held still beneath
The trees of lace.

The sky is low.
The wind is gray.
The radiator
Purrs all day.

Last year’s poem for January was by John Clare, in which he described the seasonal pleasures of a pre-industrial winter, including schoolboys with ‘numbed and clumpsing fingers.‘ On this occasion let’s consider an image more common from our own times – or, at least, those times when we might expect morning milk deliveries in glass bottles.

In our cities we recognise the thin glint of winter sun squeezed between the late sunrises and the early sunsets, and the further north we live the narrower that gap seems to be. The frozen and broken milk bottles ostensibly place us in an earlier time, but the tide is turning for local dairies: a combination of rejecting single use plastic containers for environmental reasons, plus the advantages of door-step glass bottle daily deliveries as an alternative to risking supermarket Covid-19 hotspots means their business is on an upswing.

John Updike is more widely known as a writer than as a poet. I like his writing, and haven’t encountered a dud among those books of his I’ve read, but as a novelist he’s never really grabbed my attention in the way that other writers might. No matter how much I’ve enjoyed any particular book of his, it’s never nurtured an urge to devour the rest of his oeuvre immediately. His poetry though does have that effect, and the more of his verse I read, the more I want to read. As it happens his initial ambition was to be a poet, but he extended his range to include literary fiction as he knew he’d be unable to make a living from poetry alone; maybe the literary establishment ought to consider him as a poet with a fictional sideline rather than a novelist with a frivolous poetry sideline.

Updike himself distinguished between what he described as his “poetry” and “light verse,” and in Collected Poems: 1953-1993 he divides his work into these two categories. In some respects this is unfortunate because it has encouraged a view that his poetry is little more than light, trivial verse and superficially such claims might be sustained because much of Updike’s poetry concerns commonplace, everyday experiences. January is a case in point: it’s short, there’s a whimsical twist at the end, and it’s commonplace subject. And yet apart from that twist the poem has a sombre coldness that derives from its short bleak lines. There’s a darkness about the images of thin sunlight, broken glass, frost, and naked trees, so that the the final verse

The sky is low.
The wind is gray.
The radiator
Purrs all day.

comes almost as a nervous joke that seeks to break a spell of gloom. There is very little that is light or trivial about the poem’s subject matter. Indeed, we have our own equivalents of his purring radiator, like a contented cat sleeping away the winter; it’s what keeps us going through the dark months.

When I wrote about John Clare, I compared the underlying sentiment of his Schoolboys in Winter with that of Sara Teasdale in her poem A Winter Night, noting that whereas Clare saw winter as part of the natural cycle of life to be enjoyed and celebrated, Teasdale offered a more contemporary response to winter as something to be endured, suffered, and banished behind the curtains: ‘My room is like a bit of June.’ Updike too is content with being insulated from the cold outside.

I write this watching on TV the inauguration of the 46th President of the USA on TV, with wind and rain whipping around the bay window, and dull low clouds scudding across a darkening sky. Washington appears bleak but bright in comparison to London’s soggy chill; interestingly, the 45th President chose to be elsewhere but the ceremony was attended by the 44th, and the 43rd and the 42nd Presidents. It might be too early to tell, but it appears that I’m witnessing the first signs of spring. The days are getting longer, and will be getting brighter soon.

Header photo: Two frozen milk bottles in Detroit, by Joe Clark, 14 January 1957, from the The Clarke Family Photography Collection at UNT Digital Library

Photo of John Updike at The Hay Literary Festival, 2002 by David Levene, from The Guardian, 12 March 2009

Winter Sunrise over Haarlem, Nederland, photo by Marc Kleen on Unsplash