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Occasional Poem – John Updike

Monday, July 31, 2006


I sometimes fear the younger generation will be deprived
…..of the pleasures of hoeing;
…..there is no knowing
how many souls have been formed by this simple exercise.

The dry earth like a great scab breaks, revealing
…..moist-dark loam —
…..the pea-root’s home,
a fertile wound perpetually healing.

How neatly the green weeds go under!
…..The blade chops the earth new.
…..Ignorant the wise boy who
has never performed this simple, stupid, and useful wonder.

Well, unfortunately the term ‘hoeing’ has taken on a different connotation in this day and age, so I thought I’d bring us back to the good ole days when it still had something to do with farming.

Because that’s what this poem is — a lament for a bygone era, rooted in Norman Rockwell fantasy and small-town antique shop nostalgia; the idea that ‘hard work builds character’ and a day in the fields is a day closer to God etc etc etc. The first stanza seems to imply that ‘the younger generation’ are souless for never having hoed — that we are lacking and decrepit. This is of course partly an old man just being cranky (although I don’t know for sure how old Updike was when he wrote this — I just picture him old), but it’s also a valid comment on our modern, service-oriented society, where there’s always someone around to do something for you if you can pay for it, so why do anything for yourself?

So, to contrast with the souless kids of the first stanza, in the second he offers up the flesh of the earth that we’re all missing — “dry earth like a great scab breaks . . . moist-dark loam . . . fertile wound perpetually healing” — the earth as life-giving, as provider, as teacher, as mother etc. This is what has been lost in the great rush to get to the future as fast as possible.

Third stanza — “the blade chops the earth new” — again, renewal. But then he does something slightly unexpected; he ends the poem with an ironic twist, or ‘turn.’ I say only slightly unexpected because the form of the poem is a variation on the Petrarchan sonnet, using the ryhme scheme abba for each stanza (although ‘deprived’ and ‘exercise’ don’t really rhyme, I know). Whereas in the Petrarchan sonnet, there would be an eight-line ‘octave’ followed by a six-line ‘sestet,’ with the turn coming at the beginning of the sestet, here he uses three four-line octaves with the turn coming in the last two lines — “Ignorant the wise boy who has never performed this simple, stupid, and useful wonder.”

Updike is acknowledging that his dream of the past is silly, and that the notion that farming, or manual labour, is the cure-all for the omnipresent malaise which seems to be in the blood of the modern teenager is too simplistic; and yet, it’s not silly at the same time. It makes the ‘ignorant’ wise, and is a ‘simple, stupid, and useful wonder’ all at once. He’s asking the reader to give him their sympathies and just take his word for it that, even though the idea seems anachronistic, it worked for his generation, dammit, so why couldn’t it work for us? meopcco03971semaj

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Monday, July 31, 2006 6:53 pm

    I don’t think I can add anything new to what James has already said.

    Instead, this.

  2. Monday, August 7, 2006 6:46 pm

    I have to say that Drew is my favourite commenter so far — the wit, and hilarious ebaum videos, he brings to this task enrich us all.

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