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“Midpoint”: John Updike’s Pointillist Poem

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Engraver and Apprentice, in their room
Of acid baths and photophobic gloom,
Transform to metal dots ten shades of gray…

I have never been a fan of John Updike’s writing, but I have to admit I was really curious when a Vertigo reader mentioned that Updike had published a book of poetry in 1969 that contained numerous photographs. “Midpoint,” the long poem that opens Midpoint and Other Poems (NY: Knopf, 1969), was written “to take inventory of his life at the end of his thirty-fifth year – a midpoint,” as the book’s dust jacket puts it. As it turned out, “Midpoint” was written a few years prematurely, since Updike (1932-2009) lived to be nearly seventy-seven.

“Midpoint” has five sections or cantos.  X.J. Kennedy referred to the poem as “a personal history in heterogeneous parts —terza rima; a family photo album; a celebration in Spenserian stanzas of metals, ceramics, and polymers; Poundian cantos, complete with glosses; and a meditation in heroic couplets…” (April 1993, New Criterion). Each canto begins with an “argument” that sets forth the poet’s own summary of that section. In Canto 1, the “Introduction,” Updike writes of “early intimations of wonder and dread” and opens with the telling line “Of nothing but me, me.” Then comes Canto II, “The Photographs,” which consists only of a brief argument and twenty-one photographs of Updike and his family – grandparents, parents, siblings, himself at multiple ages, his wife (the book came out five years before his divorce from Mary), and his children.

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Argument: The pictures speak for themselves. A cycle of growth, mating, and birth. The coarse dots, calligraphic and abstract, become faces, with troubled expressions. Distance improves vision. Lost time sifts through these immutable screens.

Updike doesn’t seem to have made any attempt to make the photographs approximate any poetic form. There is no apparent rhythmic pattern to the way the photographs are placed on their five pages and the only organizing principle is chronology. The photographs themselves, which are reproduced as halftones, are purposefully printed in such a way as to show the dots formed by the halftone screens. (Although, curiously, the halftone dots are strikingly less noticeable on three of the photographs – each of which is a head shot of Updike himself.) At first I wondered if his decision to emphasize the halftone dots might be related to the Pop Art of the time, specifically Roy Lichtenstein. While it is certainly possible that Lichtenstein’s work created an awareness on Updike’s part of the underlying dots in halftone reproductions, Updike’s writing is not at all aligned with the goals of Pop Art. Rather, we should take Updike’s word for it that he sees the halftone patterns as a visual symbol of lost time and as a metaphor for distance. A halftone image – like life itself – is easier to see from afar.

Lichtenstein Jeff DetailRoy Lichtenstein, detail of Oh, Jeff… I Love You, Too…But…, 1964

In Canto III, “the Dance of the Solids,” Updike echoes the theme that images are comprised of small, nearly invisible units by turning to science to remind us that the entire universe is made up of atoms. “Solidity is an imperfect state” and light “is not so pure.”

How nicely microscopic forces yield,
In units growing visible, the World we wield!

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The argument in Canto IV, “The Play of Memory,” announces that: “The poet remembers and addresses those he has loved. Certain equations emerge from the welter, in which Walt Whitman swims. Arrows urge us on. Imagery from Canto II returns, enlarged. Sonnet to father. Conception as climax of pointillism theme. ” Here, eleven cropped versions of photographs that first appeared in Canto II are woven into the poem (although there is one image that seems to be new). The poem also employs typographic devices (bold fonts, arrows, etc.) and simple line drawings. Quotations from Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and photographs are placed throughout Updike’s sex-obsessed canto of  youthful memories (“always sex”). There is a sense of randomness to the many memories that Updike conjures; like pool balls moving around a pool table endlessly clacking into other balls, one memory evokes a new memory, which evokes yet another memory, and so on. The canto ends with an image of the next generation, a photograph of one of Updike’s children rendered nearly indistinct due to the hyper-enlarged halftone dots. Updike’s use of the art historical term “pointillism” is another hint that he is not referencing Pop Art through his dot-constructed images. Instead, he sees the halftone screen more as a corollary to the work of post-Impressionist painters like Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, who were using the scientific theories of visual perception of Hermann von Helmholtz and others as they constructed their paintings from small dabs of paint.

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Canto V: Conclusion. “Argument: The poet strives to conclude, but his aesthetic of dots prevents him. His heroes are catalogued. World politics: a long view. Intelligent hedonistic advice. Chilmark Pond in August. He appears to accept, reluctantly, his own advice.”

Reality transcends itself within;
Atomically, all writers must begin.
The Truth arrives as if by telegraph:
One dot; two dots; a silence; then a laugh.

 

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