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43 Years Later: Looking back at Updike’s “Living with a Wife”

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We’re pleased to celebrate John Updike’s birthday, March 18, by revisiting his poem, “Living With a Wife,” which first appeared in Crazyhorse #10, in March, 1972. Updike, who died in 2009, would have been 83 years old today.

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Although Updike was less well known as a poet than as a novelist, short story writer, and essayist, readers of Updike will recognize many of the themes and preoccupations of his prose in this five-part poem: a desire to give ordinary life a larger due; a view of marriage as a mystery never quite to be solved; the search for the universal in the domestic; and the ongoing difficulty of knowing those around us, no matter how much “data” we collect about them.

The poem closes on a minor note of defeat, perhaps, with the speaker still unable to reconcile his wife’s presence in his life, despite his best efforts. But the poem doesn’t yield to easy despair; instead, these five glimpses into marriage say yes to the world in all its particulars, from the wife playing Mozart barefoot in a ski sweater, to the underpants left soaking in the sink basin. The same wondering consciousness that informs Updike’s best work, from the Olinger stories to the Rabbit novels, is very much present in “Living With a Wife,” as well as Updike’s signature precision, wit, and gift for metaphor. It is an honor to have published this work back in 1972, and a pleasure to revisit it now.