Zeus In Wisconsin


Youth’s Progress

When I was born, my mother taped my ears
So they lay flat. When I had aged ten years,
My teeth were firmly braced and much improved.
Two years went by; my tonsils were removed.

At fourteen, I began to comb my hair
A fancy way. Though nothing much was there,
I shaved my upper lip — next year, my chin.
At seventeen, the freckles left my skin.

Just turned nineteen, a nicely molded lad,
I said goodbye to Sis and Mother; Dad
Drove me to Wisconsin and set me loose.
At twenty-one, I was elected Zeus.

John Updike 1932-2009

The Encylopaedia of World Biography (2004) comments:

Updike began his remarkable career as a poet in 1958 by publishing his first volume, a collection of poems titled The Carpentered Hen. It is a book of light, amusing verse in the style of Ogden Nash and Robert Service. The poetry possesses several stylistic conventions shared by his fiction: careful attention to the sounds of words and the nuances of their meanings, the use of popular culture by identifying objects by familiar brand names, and the mimicry of the popular press through advertising language and newspaper editorial boosterism. For example, a trivial snippet from Life magazine becomes the basis of a poem called “Youth’s Progress, ” which ostensibly details the physical metamorphosis of a young boy into an adult. “Dick Schneider of Wisconsin … was elected ‘Greek God’ for an interfraternity ball, ” states the original excerpt from Life. The poem takes its cue from this by citing the common milestones of developing youth: “My teeth were firmly braced and much improved./ Two years went by; my tonsils were removed.” The poet then playfully contrasts the narcissistic concerns of youth with the uniquely American optimistic faith in democracy, culminating in the assertion that even Greek divinity is accessible to the common man: “At twenty-one, I was elected Zeus.”
The illustration is a portrait of Zeus from Pompeii: Zeus, Museo archeologico nazionale di Napoli (inv. nr.9551). Da Pompei, Casa dei Dioscuri. via Wikimedia

About layanglicana

Author of books on Calcutta, Delhi and Dar es Salaam, I am now blogging as a lay person about the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. I am also blogging about the effects of World War One on the village of St Mary Bourne, Hampshire.
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2 Responses to Zeus In Wisconsin

  1. I have always enjoyed Updike. Even his novels maintain his poetic sense aesthetic construction.

    • layanglicana says:

      Me too – I came late to Updike, as I initially found him difficult, but he understands American society of a particular type better than anyone else, doesn’t he?

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