John Crowe Ransom] has a wonderful line: what a poet must have in the right order is the head, the heart, and the foot. That’s a physical description of a rhythmic and intellectual activity, of poetry.”
Here at the beginning of my first attempt at blogging, I’m thinking about poetry and tennis as the French Open 2012 enters its second week of play. Some of the poets whose work I most love – Philip Levine, Dave Smith, Galway Kinnell, for starters – are, or have been, avid players, and have sometimes brought the sport into their poems. Although I’m married to a former professional tennis player who now makes a career of coaching and writing about the game, I, myself, don’t play. This time of year, however, I love to watch the French, and then Wimbledon. And though I’m aware of how my work as a poet allows me to enjoy the careful, long-held, highly respected rituals, the unique rules of the game, and the inspiring but quite terrifying display of solitary human endeavor acted out on a bounded field of composition, until recently, I haven’t thought much about why this sport should appeal so particularly to poets (even those, like me, who don’t play). Erratic ruminations follow…
Apparently, English-language poets have been writing about tennis for a long time, as far back as the 16th century. Here’s a tennis sonnet by Edward de Vere:
When as the heart at tennis plays, and men to gaming fall,
Love is the court, hope is the house, and favour serves the ball.
The ball itself is true desert; the line ,which measure shows,
Is reason, whereon judgment looks how players win or lose.
The jetty is deceitful guile; the stopper, jealousy,
Which hath Sir Argus’ hundred eyes wherewith to watch and pry.
The fault, wherewith fifteen is lost, is want of wit and sense,
And he that brings the racket in is double diligence.
And lo, the racket is freewill, which makes the ball rebound;
And noble beauty is the chase, of every game the ground.
But rashness strikes the ball awry, and where is oversight?
and quote; A bandy ho,and quote; the people cry, and so the ball takes flight.
Now, in the end, good-liking proves content the game and gain.
Thus, in a tennis, knit I love, a pleasure mixed with pain.
Perhaps the most famous quarrel that ever took place on a tennis court occurred not between two tennis players, but between two poets. Sometime towards the end of August 1579 at Greenwich Castle in England the aforementioned de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (one of the most seriously-considered candidates for actual author of Shakespeare’s poems and plays) was rudely rebuffed by Philip Sidney when he tried to enter a game already in play. Insulted, the Earl of Oxford reportedly called the commoner Sidney (not yet Sir Philip) a “puppy.” More insulted, Sidney was provoked enough to try to escalate the incident into a duel. Elizabeth I – upon whose courts the two were arguing – had to intervene to avert violence, thus ensuring, perhaps, the subsequent production of Sidney’s Arcadia and Defense of Poetry…
(This, by the way, is sometimes reported to be the same court where Anne Boleyn, the second of Henry VIII’s six wives was watching a match on May 2, 1536, when she received summons to appear before the King’s Privy Council where she was charged with adultery, and taken off to the Tower of London. Seventeen days later, Henry, was informed of Anne’s beheading while he himself (“extremely fond of tennis, at which it is the prettiest thing in the world to see him play” ) was on court at Hampton Court Palace, hitting a few balls...)
Both writing poetry and playing tennis – though one takes place in solitude, and the other in the presence of others, ranging from a single opponent to thousands of spectators – are profoundly solitary endeavors. Both require enormous reservoirs of personal discipline, years (decades!) of methodical practice and repetition, and robust abilities to endure alone-ness, to sit with failure and uncertainty, and to return to the same texts/matches again and again, re-imagining and revising. Both require, as well, the ability to read others psychologically, as well as to deal stringently with one’s own psyche. People uninterested in facing up to their most intense fears neither play tennis, nor write poetry. As Robert Pinsky put it in his fantastic long poem, “Tennis:” “panic may be a problem.” “All of your coinages, and nerve, may fail…”
Though the art of poetry is practiced in private, its results – like that of a tennis match – are made cruelly public upon publication where aspects of the self are laid wide open for blatant inspection. To publish a poem or to play a tennis match is to offer up a publicized demonstration of the demands one is willing (and able) to make upon oneself.
I live in Nashville, Tennessee, and teach at Vanderbilt University where the tennis-playing poet and critic Randall Jarrell was captain of the tennis team in 1935, and a lifelong tennis nut. Peter Taylor, who was his student, once said that Jarrell was “able to teach literature [even] on the tennis courts.” A non-literary friend called his style of play that of “angry grace. “He had a deadly hand for killing what he despised,” was how Robert Lowell once described Jarrell. I think of this every time I drive down 25th Avenue South, where the Vanderbilt courts are now located – what a perfect description of Jarrell at work: demolishing the verses of an inferior poet on the page, or demolishing the game of an inferior opponent on the tennis court…
Robert Frost made what is probably the most famous statement ever made about poetry and tennis: "I'd as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down."
As someone who is married to a tennis player who has often played without a net – and even without a racket (substituting interesting practice objects like cast iron fry pans, the seats of wooden bar stools, broom handles, etc.) – I am continually irritated by this iconic statement of Frost’s own preference for formal verse.
Recently, I was gratified to discover Carl Sandburg’s less well-known response to Frost in the Atlantic (March 1942):
"Recently a poet was quoted as saying he would as soon play tennis without a net as to write free verse. This is almost as though a zebra should say to a leopard, "I would rather have stripes than spots," or as though a leopard should inform a zebra, "I prefer spots to stripes."
"The poet without imagination or folly enough to play tennis by serving and returning the ball over an invisible net may see himself as highly disciplined. There have been poets who could and did play more than one game of tennis with unseen rackets, volleying airy and fantastic balls over an insubstantial net, on a frail moonlit fabric of a court.
"The matter should not be argued. Those who make poems and hope their poems are not bad may find readers or listeners—and again they may not. The affair should rest there. Nothing can be proved except that some poets have one kind of readers or listeners—and other poets have other kinds. The mortal and finite rôle of the poet is the same as that of the mathematician who said that after any equation you can write, "Make the sign of infinity and pass on." And all adverse critics of any work not yet tested by time come near falling headfirst into the category of the man who enjoys his personal habit of exclaiming to any and all who vocalize, 'Would you just as soon sing as make that noise?' "
Amen, Brother Sandburg...
I’ll end today’s post with Galway Kinnell’s poem (from Mortal Acts, Mortal Words [Houghton Mifflin, 1980]) which (surely) anyone who loves tennis – playing or watching – must also love:
On the Tennis Court at Night
We step out on the green rectangle in moonlight: the lines glow, which for many have been the only lines of justice. We remember the thousand erased trajectories
of that close-contested last set – blur of volleys, soft arcs of drop shots, huge ingrown loops of lobs with topspin that went running away, cross courts recrossing down to each sweet (and in exact proportion, bitter) * in Talbert and Olds' The Game of Doubles in Tennis. The breeze has carried them off but we still hear the mutters, the double faulter's groans, cries of "Deuce!" or "Love two!", squeak of tennis shoes, grunt of overreaching, all dozen extant tennis quips - "Just out!" or, "About right for you?" or, "Want to change partners?" – and baaah of sheep translated very occasionally into thonk of well-hit ball, among the pure right angles and unhesitating lines of this arena where every man grows old pursuing that repertoire of perfect shots, darkness already in his strokes, even in death cramps squeezing a tennis ball
for arm strength to the disgust of the night nurse, and smiling; and a few hours later found dead – the smile still in place but the ice bag left cooling the brow now mysteriously icing the right elbow – causing all those bright trophies to slip permanently, though not in fact much farther, out of reach, all except for the thick-bottomed young man about to double fault in soft metal on the windowsill: "Runner-Up Men's Class B Consolation Doubles St. Johnsbury Kiwanis Tennis Tournament 1969"...
Clouds come over the moon; all the lines go out. November last year in Lyndonville: it is getting dark, snow starts falling, Zander Rubin wobble-twists his worst serve out of the black woods behind him, Tommy Glines lobs into a gust of snow, Dom Bredes smashes at where in theory the ball could be coming down, the snow blows
and swirls about our legs, darkness flows across a disappearing patch of green-painted asphalt in the north country, where four souls, half-volleying, poaching, missing, grunting, begging mercy of their bones, hold their ground, as winter comes on, all the winters to come.