Tag Archives: John Updike

U- John Updike: On Dogs. A Letter to Dead Poets #atozchallenge.

A narrative is like a room on whose walls a number of false doors have been painted; while within the narrative, we have many apparent choices of exit, but when the author leads us to one particular door, we know it is the right one because it opens.

John Updike

Dear Mr Updike,

Indeed, this narrative picked me up out of my comfy chair and brought me to your door.

What started out as a blogging challenge writing Letters to Dead Poets  through all the letters of the alphabet, has become a gripping spiritual and philosophical journey. Due to the alphabetical nature of the challenge, I’ve been introduced to a swag of new poets, including yourself. Indeed, I was rather thrilled to come across your poem: Dog’s Death as I was missing a poet starting with “U”. I had been thinking about dedicating U to unknown poets, including that most famous of all “Anon”. However, as a dedicated lover of dogs, you were a perfect choice. I am also pleased it provide the opportunity to get to know you better and learn so much. Indeed, this is only the beginning.

Although I’d heard your name before, I had no idea about the depth and spread of your achievements and now feel rather humbled writing you what really is a very basic letterUpdike NYRB

Aside from an anthology of poetry which I self-published on a photocopier back in 1992, I haven’t published any grand masterpiece or anything worthy of sending through to you at the New York Review of Books. I am but a humble soul being humbled even further as I confront my ignorance head on through these letters.

Indeed, I can compare my self-doubts with your tales from the golf course:

THE TROUBLE WITH A CADDIE           December 1993

Basically, I want to be alone with my golf.

I don’t mind my partner and opponents being there — they are, in a sense, part of the necessary scenery — but to have a couple of youthful (usually) strangers also in attendance turns the game into a mob sport. My golf is so delicate, so tenuously wired together with silent inward prayers, exhortations and unstable visualizations, that the sheer pressure of an additional pair of eyes crumbles the whole rickety structure into rubble. What is the caddie thinking? keeps running through my mind, to the exclusion of all else. And, How he must hate me! Or perhaps, with that last foozled 3-wood, I have passed into a netherworld beneath his contempt. My wish to please the fellow becomes obsessive and counterproductive, one of golf’s magic maxims being that the harder you try, the worse you play.

Imagine writing a poem with a sweating, worried-looking boy handing you a different pencil at the end of every word. My golf, you may say, is no poem; nevertheless, I keep wanting it to be one.”

Updike golfer.png

Speaking of golf, which has to be my father’s favourite topic, you said:

“Somehow, it is hard to dislike a man once you have played a round of golf with him,” -John Updike

Bearing this in mind, I wondered whether I should be inviting you out for a game of golf, instead of committing these feeble words to the page. Having you peer over my shoulder, is enough to constipate even the most expressive writer. Not that this is a manuscript and I could only hope that your mail is spared your critical eye.

However, I also read about your childhood memories of your mother writing and sensed compassion for someone trying to find their way and carve a path through the literary wilderness:

“One of my earliest memories is of seeing her at her desk… I admired the writer’s equipment, the typewriter eraser, the boxes of clean paper. And I remember the brown envelopes that stories would go off in—and come back in.” 2.

writing in Paris

Writing in Paris, 1992.

It’s not easy trying to be a writer. It’s not like you can stick a gold plaque out the front of your house and you’re in business. You can be a very gifted, talented and hard working writer but it also takes something else to convert those words into magic.

Indeed, your verdict decreed whether many a book sank or swam.

That’s very intimidating to a writer who is still a tender reed.

Yet, your brilliant career started with one, first step. No doubt, it was a huge step at the time when The New Yorker accepted one of your poems in 1954, followed by a short story. Indeed, your first book, The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures (1958), was a collection of poems[1].

However, that wasn’t why I was writing to you. I’m nowhere near ready for that conversation.

Rather, I’m writing to you about dogs and in particular what it means when your beloved doggy dies. Your poem was very moving:

Dog’s Death

She must have been kicked unseen or brushed by a car.
Too young to know much, she was beginning to learn
To use the newspapers spread on the kitchen floor
And to win, wetting there, the words, “Good dog! Good dog!”

We thought her shy malaise was a shot reaction.
The autopsy disclosed a rupture in her liver.
As we teased her with play, blood was filling her skin
And her heart was learning to lie down forever.

Monday morning, as the children were noisily fed
And sent to school, she crawled beneath the youngest’s bed.
We found her twisted and limp but still alive.
In the car to the vet’s, on my lap, she tried

To bite my hand and died. I stroked her warm fur
And my wife called in a voice imperious with tears.
Though surrounded by love that would have upheld her,
Nevertheless she sank and, stiffening, disappeared.

Back home, we found that in the night her frame,
Drawing near to dissolution, had endured the shame
Of diarrhoea and had dragged across the floor
To a newspaper carelessly left there. Good dog.

John Updike

So, I have come to ask you what for many dog lovers is the ultimate question:

Why don’t dogs live as long as people? Why is it so?

Dogs are our best friends and yet it is no exaggeration to suggest we could live eight times as long as our believed mutt.

In our family, we live with this conundrum. Our Border Collie, Bilbo, and our daughter are both ten years old. When Bilbo first arrived, our daughter was crawling…just like him and at his level.. They were both in a sense “puppies together”. They both turn ten this year . Yet, our daughter is still a child and roughly half grown up, but Bilbo is the canine equivalent of 70 and has become “elderly”. It’s like the two of them are travelling in different, parallel roads through time. He’s in the fast lane accelerating at seven times her pace and sooner than we’d like to think, he’s going to reach the end of his road. Come to a full stop. Meanwhile, her road is only beginning.

Bilbo + Amelia

Mind you, try telling Bilbo he’s too old to chase the ball. Forget it! When that Senior Citizen sees a ball, he’s an energetic pup again and racing down the beach.

Bilbo with ball

Bilbo appropriating another dog’s ball.


Anyway, thank you for your patience. It’s been such a pleasure engaging with you!

Yours sincerely,



[1] http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/john-updike#poet

2. Barrett, Andrea (14 January 1990). “Nibbled at By Neighbors”. The New York Times. Retrieved 7 May 2010.