Books: Light Fantastic

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TELEPHONE POLES by John Updike. 83 pages. Knopf. $4.

Novelists and short-story writers are a glut on the literary market, but a man who can dance a light fantastic stanza without tripping over his dactyls is a treasure to be prized. John Updike was a light versifier before he became a novelist, and his latest verse demonstrates that he is perhaps the best player of the game since Ogden Nash and Morris Bishop came into their prime.

Updike has neither Nash's bewildered air of good sense wrapped in metrical nonsense nor Bishop's malicious delight in destroying his targets in a single, whiplashing line. His tone is more urbane and more lyrical, a bit reminiscent of Britain's John Betjeman. A name, a scrap of a news item, a thought from a book is enough to set his graceful mages turning and his lines moving to impeccable rhythms. A sentence by New York Times Book Reviewer Orville Prescott praising two novels for being 'neither overly ambitious nor overly ong" prompts:

Oh, to be Orville Prescott

Now that summer's here,

And the books on tinted paper

Blow lightly down the air,

And the merciful brevity of every page

Becalms the winter's voluminous rage,

And unambition like lilac lies

On Prescott's eyes.

The name of an author, M. Anantanarayanan, starts a reverie:

I picture him as short and tan.

We'd meet, perhaps, in Hindustan.

I'd say, with admirable elan,

"Ah, Anantanarayanan—I've heard of you. The Times once ran

A notice on your novel, an

Unusual tale of God and Man."

And Anantanarayanan

Would seat me on a lush divan

And read his name—that sumptuous span

Of "a's" and "n's" more lovely than

"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan"—At his best, Updike is able to slip unobtrusively out of light verse into something more barbed. The Encyclopaedia Britannica tells him that, except for the elephant and the giraffe, man holds his heart higher above the ground than any other animal:

Poor man, an ape, anxious to use his paws,

Became erect and held the pose because

His brain, developing beyond his ken,

Kept whispering, "The universe wants men."

So still he strains to keep his heart


Too high and low at once, too hard and soft.