Perfection Wasted by John Updike

Here is an analysis of John Updike’s poem Perfection Wasted, which appears in The Collected Poems of John Updike (1953-1993). While certainly a respected poet, Updike is mostly known as a novelist, short story writer, and literary and art critic. His popular Rabbit series, which chronicles the adventures of an ordinary man, earned him two Pulitzer Prizes. He published eight volumes of poetry in his lifetime, and his poems exhibited many forms and themes. Updike is considered to be one of the most respected American writers of his generation, and he is one of three writers to earn to Pulitzer Prizes in Literature. Updike died of lung cancer at the age of seventy-six in 2009.


Summary of Perfection Wasted

In this poem, Updike explores what happens after one dies. Those closest to the person mourn, and memories are recalled, but the saddest part of death is quite possibly the fact that the “magic” that the person took his or her whole life to perfect is suddenly gone. The uniqueness that belongs to each person goes away with their deaths, never to be replicated, even by those who try to imitate or by the person’s descendants.


Analysis of Perfection Wasted

Updike utilizes free verse in his fourteen-line poem, which can be read in full here. There is no rhyme and meter in the poem, and the lines vary in length and style.

Perfection Wasted opens in medias res, or “in the middle things.” The first line gives the feeling that the reader has walked into a conversation already in progress. The use of the conjunction and signifies that this is not the first “regrettable thing” the speaker, presumably Updike, has discussed about death, but it is the only reason the reader is privy to throughout the poem.

The first ten lines of the poem are one continuous sentence, broken up by dashes and commas. In the first two lines, however, Updike gives us what he believes to be one of the regrettable things about death. In lines two and three, Updike comments on the unique magic that lives and inside every person. This magic is grown and cultivated throughout a person’s life, and once that person passes away, the magic dies with them, too.

The subsequent lines list all of the attributes that make a person uniquely their own. One’s likes and dislikes, funny sayings, and the ways in which they act in front of those they know and love all make a person unique and set apart from others. These quips are, according to Updike, the unique magic that each person possesses.

Line five starts a new idea, and that is of the unique relationship each person has with the people they love. Updike uses vivid imagery here of a person’s loved ones being at the performance of their life, in the front row. This analogy of a life being one big performance is a bit clichéd, but it is an important reminder that a person is not alone. While they are the star in their own life, they are surrounded by people who love them and are cheering them on. The idea continues:

…their laughter close to tears,
their tears confused with their diamond earrings,
their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,
their response and your performance twinned.

Just as in previous lines to Perfection Wasted Updike described one’s loved ones as an audience with front-row tickets, he continues that analogy. Here, the audience is laughing so hard they are almost crying; their tears sparkling on their faces—to use the metaphor Updike uses—like diamonds sparkle in one’s ears. Line nine is particularly beautiful because it shows just how close the human experience can be. As the person’s heart is beating, the breaths of their loved ones are matching its rhythm, breathing in and out as the person’s heart is pumping blood to and away from itself. Not only does one’s heartbeat match the breaths of one’s loved ones, but so, too, do the loved ones’ thoughts and feelings match the performer’s. If the performer is sad, it can be inferred that their sadness is mirrored in the feelings of their loved ones. Likewise, if a person is happy, their loved ones will also be happy. Updike seems to be commenting here that while one’s life can absolutely feel like a solitary experience, one is rarely alone when there are friends and family involved.

In lines eleven and twelve, Updike returns to listing the unique actions each person performs in his or her life. While this is certainly carried with one’s friends and family, the magic is still broken after the person has died.

The last two lines of Perfection Wasted are a question and an answer to said question. Others may take on the attributes and idiosyncrasies of the dead, but their magic is different; therefore, what is lost after one passes is lost forever. Those who imitate and those who are related to the dead may try to replicate the behaviour of the lost, but they will never be able to replace the person who is gone.


Historical Background

Updike was known for writing works about the everyday man, and this poem is a testament to this fact. He writes here of the shared human experience: everyone lives, loves, and eventually, dies. While this theme is used consistently throughout literature, the cliché does not seem overly trite in Updike’s poem. He is simply celebrating the uniqueness—and magic—that is in every single person and subsequently lost when they are gone.

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