Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Seven Stanzas at Easter

I love this poem by the late American novelist and poet, John Updike; in fact on the previous two Easters I posted an extract from it here on the blog. A regular reader, Erika Hoffman, noted in a comment today how salutary it is to reflect on this poem during the Easter season, which has prompted me to post it here in full for the edification of readers who may not know it (with the hope and prayer that the copyright acknowledgment at the end will be sufficient to keep this legal!)

Without checking Wiki, I'm sure I'm correct in saying that Updike (pictured) was born into an old Pennsylvania Lutheran family, but later in life became an Episcopalian, i.e. the American version of an Anglican. Now, pray tell, why would someone do that? Why forsake Zion for Gerizim? (I beseech my Anglican readers to graciously bear with this joke at their expense.)

Needless to say, this poem was written when Updike was still Lutheran, in 1961.

Seven Stanzas at Easter

By John Updike

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

From 'Telephone Poles and Other Poems' © 1961 by John Updike. Reprinted here by the unbelievably kind and exceptionally magnanimous permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House Inc, which I believe is now owned by the redoubtable former Australian, Rupert Murdoch. We seek his indulgence.


Jon Christenson said...

Updike was a faithful Lutheran when he wrote this poem. His pastor in Connecticut published his reflections of him at the time of his death in the Lutheran magazine (if I am recalling correctly). I'll try to find it.

'acroamaticus' said...

Thanks Jon, that would be very intresting.

Jon Christenson said...

The story behind Seven Stanzas

Norman D. Kretzmann remembers John Updike as a young Harvard graduate who sought out Clifton Lutheran Church in Marblehead, Mass., because it "nurtured the roots of faith he had grown up with in Pennsylvania."

Kretzmann, pastor of Marblehead at the time, proudly recalls that Updike was among the 96 adults who entered the congregation's Religious Arts Festival in 1960 — and that his poem, Seven Stanzas at Easter, won $100 for "Best of Show."

"People in the parishes I served became quite accustomed to my quoting his poem in my Easter sermons at least every few years," says Kretzmann, who lives in a Minneapolis retirement center and regularly contributes to the Metro Lutheran newspaper.

Kretzmann closely follows Updike's work, which includes more than 50 novels and books of poems. In a Metro Lutheran review of John Updike and Religion (Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000) he wrote: "I was John Updike's pastor during the time which the writer later described as his 'angst-besmogged period.' Who was the rabbi and who was the disciple of our years together is hard to say."

The pastor still has Updike's 41-year-old typed copy of Seven Stanzas — "marked up with all sorts of irrelevant notes by me, instructions to me for homiletical purposes or for various secretaries," he said. And Kretzmann has one more fond memory from the festival: Updike gave the $100 prize back to the congregation.

(From The Lutheran magazine)