Small-City People by John Updike

American author and poet John Updike, spent time in the city of Lawrence. Lawrence inspired the poem Small-City People, published in 1982. His poem July celebrating the 4th of July; Updike wrote while sitting in a park in Lawrence.

Small-City People

They look shabby and crazy but not

in the campy big-city way of those

who really would kill you or really do

have a million dollars in the safe at home—

dudes of the absolute, swells of the dark.

Small-city people hardly expect to get

looked at, in their parkas

and their hunting caps and babushkas

and Dacron suits and outmoded

bouffants. No tourists come

to town or to stare, no Japanese

or roving photographers.

The great empty mills, the wide main drag

with its boarded-up display windows,

the clouded skies that never quite rain

form a rock there is no out from under.

The girls look tough, the men look tired,

the old people dress up for a circus called off

because of soot, and snarl

with halfhearted fury, their hats

on backwards. The genetic pool

confluxes to cast up a rare beauty,

or a boy full of brains:

These can languish as in a desert

or eventually flourish, for not being

exploited too soon.

Small cities are kind, for

failure is everywhere, ungrudging;

not to mention free parking

and bowls of little pretzels in the ethnic bars.

Small-city people know what they know,

and what they know is what you learn

only living in a place

no one would choose but that chose you,


-John Updike

by Lindsey L. Gazlay

2 Responses

  1. I’m wondering what brought John Updike to Lawrence.

    • I read something that seemed to suggest his son went to school here – although it didn’t say where.

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