“April is the cruellest month,” for a basketball fan. No more college March Madness until next year. Not until May will the NBA playoffs get serious or the WNBA season begin. To continue the quote from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland: “Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”
However, if you are a poet and basketball fan, Michigan State University Press has an April antidote: a recently released collection of essays, fast break to line break poets on the art of basketball. The 25 contributors were asked to reflect how the love of basketball influences their poems and their lives as writers. Editor Todd Davis, the author of four books of poems, makes a strong argument that “if baseball is the sport of elegant prose, basketball may be the sport of verse.”
Part of his evidence comes from a poet couple, Margaret Gibson and David McKain, who met at a Yaddo residency. He infected her with his love of basketball. Her subsequent comparison: “Learning the craft in order to be, without self-consciousness, freed into a new rhythm, a heart-leaping, line-breaking fluidity I find only in poetry when I consider language and only in basketball when I consider sport.”
Or Two Things You Need Balls to Do, says Natalie Diaz in her poem in the First Quarter section. (Diaz, a former professional basketball player turned poet, is a recent BAP interview.)
Davis is after “the liminal space where art and body are fused” on the court and on the page. With a few exceptions most of the essays are new; Basketball and Poetry: The Two Riches by Stephen Dunn is reprinted from one of this books. The topics range from basketball obsessions to serious poetry craft talk. Quincy Troupe, also a former professional player, offers both in a detailed analysis of the multiple drafts required to have the words, images and rhythmic speed of the poem For Magic reflect the improvisational wizardry of one of greatest ever point guards, Magic Johnson.
Of course there is the expected bemoaning of aging body parts by the middle-aged with tacit appreciation that poetry is not hard on the knees. “I have been blessed by elbows,” writes Ross Gay who refers to young hoopsters as kangaroos. His point, echoed by several other writers, is the thrill of surprise; elbow “as a kind of bold poetic line….Elbow as possibility. Elbow as dream.”
One of my favorites, in a section labeled Halftime, are the observations of Debra Marquart, a former high school cheerleader. She argues a poem or a game of basketball can be defined identically: “a closed and finite experiment designed to test the mettle and training, the natural talents and improvisational skills of its participants.”
From her vantage on the sidelines, she compares the “acoustic landscape of a basketball game” to poetry and pre-poetry: "Before poems and prayers, there were spells and charms – carefully arranged words selected not only for their figurative and literal meanings, but also for their acoustic value, arranged and vocalized in specific, ritualized ways, so that they would travel as acoustic values through the waves of the world and effect change on the material plane.”
Which is why Eliot filled the then-largest collegiate basketball arena in the country on April 30, 1956. His post-season lecture at Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis drew more than 13,000 cheering poetry fans.
Catherine Woodard has played coed, pick-up basketball in New York City for three decades. Her poems have appeared in Poet Lore, Southern Poetry Review, RHINO and other journals. In 2011, Woodard was the featured poet at UnshodQuills.com, co-published Still Against War/Poems for Marie Ponsot and was a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She will be a 2012 fellow at the Hambidge Center in Georgia and is a board member of the Poetry Society of America. Woodard is a former president of Artists Space, one of the nation’s oldest spaces for emerging visual artists. Woodard has a MFA in poetry from the New School University and MS in journalism from Columbia University.