There’s an old poem I was made to study in college, “Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff,” by A.E. Housman. The title refers to a man’s opinion about the value of poetry (he'd rather drink beer), with the poet arguing that there is actually practical value to verse—to prepare one for the rough and tumble of life.
I've just finished reading the last poems of John Updike, my favorite writer, and I can only echo Housman, and say, this is not stupid stuff.
Updike died in January at age 76 after having written hundreds of literary works. He achieved the rare feat of producing best sellers that also garnered all the great literary awards, including Pulitzer Prizes for two of his “Rabbit” novels.
In 1986, I wrote Updike a letter inviting him to speak at our company about an idea he had written about—how to achieve a “sense of useful work.” (This is something more of a concern for artists and writers than for farmers.)
He declined the offer, but in a warm, personal note conveyed that he was pleased to correspond with me. I have liked to think that it was in part because he viewed agricultural journalism as “useful work.”
Updike’s last poems, which were published this week in The New Yorker are the “stupid stuff” that Housman talked about—they prepare you for what’s in store for all of us.
The poems are written during a brief period between when he was diagnosed with lung cancer and the last stages of treatment for his illness. They look back on life without remorse and ahead to his last days with a brave face.
One of the poems pays tribute to his "dear friends of childhood, classmates" for providing him material for his life-long profession. Everything he needed for a life of writing was right there in his home town of Shillington, Pennsylvania, he wrote--with its “little factories, cornfields and trees, leaf fires, snowflakes, pumpkins, valentines.”
This appreciation of the details of daily life is something that all of us work for, I suspect. It's just that John Updike got it all down on paper.