July 24 John Updike: Winter Ocean

I know this writer’s name because I’ve seen his books on my father’s shelves. He wrote a mystery series (I think they’re mysteries) about a guy named Rabbit and that’s about all I know about it. I took some of them home, but as with most of my father’s books I’ve absconded with, they’re just sitting there collecting dust. (I still have I Am Legend with the spooky 1970s illustration of a vampire monk on the cover; it’s so lost I had to buy a reprint.)

I didn’t realize he wrote poetry, but poetry is actually a wonderful avenue for the writer to learn writing. It concentrates the writing mind on language and how to manipulate it, on words and how to choose them very carefully, on metaphor and figures of speech, on subtext and how to layer and say many things at once. These are important skills to have in all contexts of writing (with the exception of the very plain technical writing, although perhaps word choice is a good thing to have practice at here as well).

I don’t know if Sound is something that will help the prose writer, especially since most readers won’t read their books out loud. This isn’t to say that the text shouldn’t have a nice rhythm or a beautiful sound to it. We all know the sound and rhythm of a Noir novel: choppy and terse with a bit of a jazz beat, but also plain and no nonsense. If you read a Victorian book like something of Dickens it will have a long drawn out and formal feeling to it. The took their time to set a scene and show you the countryside, so their sentences were long and exploding with detail; you have to read them twice just to get everything in.

So, sound does apply in cursory way to prose writing. If you want to copy a style (for instance, write a noir novel), it might be best to read the book you want to copy out loud, because every style does, in fact, have a certain sound. And if you want to learn more about writing sound, why not play with poetry.

Anyhow, on to this poem. It has a certain muddy, squishy sound to it. Perhaps the poet wrote it right after he squished through a low tide beach all squelchy and seaweed covered. Smelly and loud with squeals of gulls and fish bones dotting the landscape. I can hear the squish, squish of boots in the line: “Many-maned scud-thumper, tub” and the repeated hss and crash of waves in the line “portly pusher of waves, wind-slave.” It sounds, from the context of the poem, that the poet is exploring the wreckage of a ship washed up on shore which is one of the many crazy things that the sea returns to us. Perhaps the poem is like a haiku, using sparse words to try to capture the sound and the feel of one particular moment in his life. Perhaps if we listen quietly and carefully (put the poem to our ears), we too can hear the sea.

Winter Ocean

by John Updike

Many-maned scud-thumper, tub
of male whales, maker of worn wood, shrub-
ruster, sky-moker, rave!
portly pusher of waves, wind-slave



About penneloppe

I like to write horror, dark fantasy and crime fiction. Sometimes, I'll write science fiction, but usually I like to write science fact. I also write screenplays and stage plays. My day job is office work. I live in Seattle and I have a cat.
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