Saying Goodbye to Very Young Children
They will not be the same next time. The sayings
so cute, just slightly off, will be corrected.
Their eyes will be more skeptical, plugged in
the more securely to the worldly buzz
of television, alphabet, and street talk,
culture polluting their gazes’ pure blue.
It makes you see at last the value of
those boring aunts and neighbors (their smells
of summer sweat and cigarettes, their faces
like shapes of sky between shade-giving leaves)
who knew you from the start, when you were zero,
cooing their nothings before you could be bored
or knew a name, not even your own, or how
this world brave with hellos turns all goodbye.
- by John Updike
If you knew me very well, you would have expected me to focus on “Ex-Basketball Player“, a poem many of us encountered in high school. It’s a fine poem, and lines like “His hands are fine and nervous on the lug wrench./It makes no difference to the lug wrench, though” and “His hands were like wild birds” have stayed in my memory for 30+ years, taking up space that could be used for other things like siblings’ birthdays or how long to boil an egg. That’s okay, though – poetry is best when it slips into your mind when you don’t even know you need it, and I can look the other stuff up.
“Saying Goodbye to Very Young Children”, however, caught my eye as I was reading some of Updike’s poetry. He captures a phenomenon I’ve subconsciously noticed but never would have articulated. Children begin losing their innocence so soon – as soon as they begin gathering information. If according to recapitulation theory “ontogeny is a brief recapitulation of phylogeny“, Updike may be creating a moral theory under which a child’s gathering of information is a brief recapitulation of the expulsion from Eden.
So, Updike recognizes the value of the chroniclers, those aunts who knew us when we were zero. In so much of his work, Updike was exactly that – a chronicler of the decline of innocence. Rabbit Angstrom begins with a thoughtless kind of innocence, as did Piet in Couples. In Updike’s novels, though, the decline of thoughtless innocence is a necessary part of moral growth – in this far briefer poem, it is something sadder.
Once the child begins learning names, and developing his or her own identity, “this world brave with hellos turns all goodbye”. I hope that some of those saying goodbye to Mr. Updike will say a brave hello to some of his poetry.