Gary Lehmann

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 Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Gary Lehmann’s essays, poetry and short stories are widely published – over 100 pieces per year. Books include The Span I will Cross [Process Press, 2004] and Public Lives and Private Secrets [Foothills Publishing, 2005]. His most recent book is American Sponsored Torture [FootHills Publishing, 2007]. Visit his website at

Updike on the Beach



A poem is a kind of meditation.  It focuses our attention on something too small or too large to be generally the subject of fiction and too fleeting to appear in non-fiction.  Yet while fiction is all about its diversions, a good poem will be about some sort of central idea developed and honed to a fine point.   In the case of John Updike’s poem Seagulls, that fine point has to do with the similarity between beach people and seagulls. It’s not a very flattering comparison.


John Updike , the author of 60 books, has only been the author of a smattering of  books of poetry, yet in each of his literary works, there is a sense of completeness which is also reflected in this poem.  Seagulls was written before Updike became famous, while he was still searching for his wings, but there is one thing he already understands quite well.   A poem is a kind of meditation.  To do its job well, it must return from a voyage of discovery and bring something back worth knowing.


Seagulls by John Updike

A gull, up close,
looks surprisingly stuffed.
His fluffy chest seems filled
with an inexpensive taxidermist's material
rather lumpily inserted. The legs,
unbent, are childish crayon strokes—
too simple to be workable.
And even the feather markings,
whose intricate symmetry is the usual glory of birds,
are in the gull slovenly,
as if God makes too many
to make them very well.

Are they intelligent?
We imagine so, because they are ugly.
The sardonic one-eyed profile, slightly cross,
the narrow, ectomorphic head, badly combed,
the wide and nervous and well-muscled rump
all suggest deskwork: shipping rates
by day, Schopenhauer
by night, and endless coffee.

At that hour on the beach
when the flies begin biting in the renewed coolness
and the backsliding skin of the after-surf
reflects a pink shimmer before being blotted,
the gulls stand around in the dimpled sand
like those melancholy European crowds
that gather in cobbled public square in the wake
of assassinations and invasions,
heads cocked to hear the latest radio reports.

It is also this hour when plump young couples
walk down to the water, bumping together,
and stand thigh-deep in the rhythmic grass.
Then they walk back toward the car,
tugging as if at a secret between them,
but which neither quite knows—
walks capricious paths through the scattering gulls,
as in some mythologies
beautiful gods stroll unconcerned
among our mortal apprehensions.


This poem is largely visual in its metaphors.  Although many people recollect the seagull for its loud squawking noises and its graceful flight, Updike purposely avoids these obvious comparisons to guide our attention toward another aspect of the bird, its awkward walk.  Significantly, the narrator is not in the poem.  Updike’s point is being withheld until the end.  The narrator is required to wait in the background until called upon to step forward.


The first stanza is about the birds themselves.  It focuses our attention on the bird’s “fluffy chest,” “legs” and “feather markings.”  Updike brings us to a part of the seagull’s strangeness that we have often observed but never really remarked upon at such a level before. 


Would that be enough for a good poem?  I think not.  The poem at this point is natural and interesting as far as it goes, but a better poem emerges as the poem defines some closed space, a subject with a verb, a complete thought. The poem as of the end of stanza two lacks a connection to a reader and to the human race in general.  What is wanted is what appears next. 


Here the observations about the gull are continued, his intelligence, his “one-eye profile,” and his “ectomorphic head.”  The bird begins to take on human characteristics, and we are directed to see the bird as emblematic of some aspect we have glimpsed in ourselves and other humans.  We feel more natural for all that, but the important point is something about how pedestrian the gull is as a bird, like the office worker or armchair philosopher.   These are couch potato birds, says Updike in effect, hanging around the beach all day squawking.


In stanza three, the gulls are compared to humans in a time of tragedy.  They mill around and listen to sounds that inform their opinions. They have become emblematic of humans at certain key times in their lives.  The birds are fully anthropomorphized.   Many people would say the gull is noteworthy for its loud squawk and graceful soaring flight, but these qualities appear no where in Updike’s poem.  Instead, he is leading us to see some different aspect of the gull that works for him in the act of comparing an aspect of seagull with human nature


At last, in stanza four, we see the bird/human comparison come full circle.  Here we see “plump young couples” as just another form of seagull, waddling through the grasses on the beach, heading for some undesignated destination, like gulls, sharing their unspoken secret.  In addition to seeing the birds as human we now are invited to see the humans as birds.  When the people start acting like gulls, the meditation is complete.  They “walk down to the water, bumping together.” Are we talking about humans or gulls now?  You have to look carefully to tell.

We have returned to the place of origin.  We humans are not all that different in some respects from the gulls that populate the beach.  We’re plump and waddling creatures that are likely to wander aimlessly around our respective beaches.   The last lines show us that the people, as seen by the gulls, are fine “beautiful gods” who “stroll unconcerned among our mortal apprehensions.”   Our vision of the seagull has been shaped, not as we would naturally have it, but as the poet wants it, and we have been led to see that we are frequently passive like seagulls that spend their days wandering along the beach looking out aimlessly across the sea.


A poem is a form of meditation.  Regardless of its ostensible subject, it gains strength as it relates to us as readers and to our life experiences.  The comparison it makes needs to enrich our apprehension of life, even if it does not ennoble our image of mankind, and do it in language both rich and somewhat strange.   A good poem needs to come back to where it started giving us something extra for the ride. 


Some poets do this with a refrain that appears in a slightly different light each time the familiar words are seen after a stanza of observation.  Some poets do it by relating the title of the poem to the last line or by telling a story that arrives at a certain place, which is somehow the inevitable result of the thoughts that piled up before it.  Some sense of circularity is almost always involved when a poem works well.


John Updike has accomplished this goal splendidly in his poem Seagulls, written in 1959 when his career was still getting started.  It is interesting to note that for three summers after he graduated from high school, Updike worked as a copy boy for the Reading, PA newspaper, rather like a seagull in training for the upcoming encounter with everyday existence.  Despite being an early poem, Seagulls contains a basic writers’ secret that has served Updike well all these years through prose and poetry.