The Handoff: On Track and Field and The Poem
The relay, at heart, is about conveyance. The body trained as a vessel. Handing off—often blindly and so seamlessly we hardly notice the moment of transfer—is the point. Perhaps that's why there seems to be less glory in it than in other events. What is carried and passed on is what matters most. Dropping the baton is the worst thing that can happen. Worse even than finishing last. I suppose that's why, as a poet, I feel rather sentimental about the relay. And why its plain-faced lessons never fail to frustrate me. It doggedly insists that we concern ourselves with the prosaic mechanics of what and how and why and to whom we seek to convey. You know, the fundamentals. A reminder of the impetus of our drive as writers: to train our bodies as vessels.
The relay, at heart, is suffused with a juxtapositional tension. It requires both the solitary task and the delicately choreographed connection to another. Not quite a conventional team sport, certainly not an individual event, the relay showcases solitary striving in relation to a succession of other lone attempts. And isn’t that what writing is, after all? The relay is, as the name suggests, relational, and not just because it puts the body in contact with other bodies but because of the ways it positions the self in relation to what precedes it and what follows. In relation to history. "Truth be told, I do not want to forget," Trethewey writes. It's sort of how I feel when I'm writing in received forms. Endeavoring alone in a long and ongoing line of tradition. Only I'm never at the end of the line, never the last runner, but somewhere in the middle, where those of us who clock a slower pace are often positioned. Struggling simply not to lose ground.
The sonnet, in its own way, is a form of relay. Or, rather, the relay, like Shakespeare or Stallings or Hacker or Trethewey, offers lessons about how a sonnet works. On a technical level, both forms are structured around four parts—four runners, four swimmers, or three quatrains followed by a couplet (at least in its English form)—each with its own scheme and purpose. Such stability in the number four, such potential for elegant symmetry. Or stiff artifice. I've sometimes wondered why there are four runners in a relay—why not three or five? And, in my wild impatience, I've wondered, too, why can't they just find four runners who all run equally fast for each of the four sections. And then I wonder why I keep writing the same unsuccessful poem over and over again. The relay invites us to get intimate with the vicissitudes of time—not just with our own humble place in its longue durée but with the ways it functions within our work. Each leg of the relay is characterized by its pace. As such, the relay offers lessons in the necessity and craft of pacing, in how to honor the various and temporally varied phases of our own writing process and in how to approach the structure of the poem itself.
Both the relay and the sonnet rely on a crucial turn. In the relay, each participant makes her strides, the moment of exchange marking a new turn. What the relay says is make the turn in a way that propels fluid, forward movement. The relay says the turn is not so much a turn as it is a clasping link between what's come before and what comes next. The pivot of relation.
The final runner in a relay race is typically the fastest runner. The anchor. A propulsive, stabilizing force. Like the relay, the final leg of a sonnet, does its work most efficiently. Who needs a quatrain when a couplet can do the job in half the time? "This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong, / To love well, which thou must leave ere long."
In the end, it's not about the runners or the writers. The baton or the torch or the poem is the real star. OK, so maybe Mohammad Ali was the real star when he dipped his relay torch to light the cauldron's flame at the 1996 Opening Ceremonies in Atlanta. But, even in this scene, what moves me so utterly is the way it makes plain that even the greatest bodies among us are merely impermanent conduits for greatness: the Greatest Fighter of All Time emerges from the darkness of backstage to receive the lit torch, his right hand steadily lifting the flame, left hand a fluttering moth. Ali's beautiful, terrible, monumental, mortal, Parkinson's-wreaked body holds the torch and we hold our breath. Will he manage to pass on the flame? We watch his body struggle, watch the cauldron fill with fire, and we are witnessing not just the harrowing proximity of failure that haunts our every attempt, but the simultaneous embodiment of both triumph and defeat. In this moment, and in the relay more generally, we are forced to reckon with the passing of time even as we are propelled inexorably forward. The baton is passed. The body loses momentum. The flame burns on.
On Table Tennis and Poetry
By Gregory Pardlo
Police arrested my best friend Nubie for sneaking out after curfew in April of tenth grade. His parents grounded him for the entire summer. I was insensible to social cues, and if not for The Nubian Prince I was effectively friendless. Ipso facto, I was grounded, too, and decided, heedless of his mother’s disapproving looks, that he and I should serve our sentences jointly. Besides, I felt like I owed him the solid of keeping him company.
Each morning, I would ride over to Nubie’s to play table tennis until his mom got home from work. He could hear my Huffy Pro Thunder wheezing as I pedaled up his driveway sometime around nine in the morning; the garage door was yawning before I rang the bell. Neither of us was a very good player at the start of summer, but The Nubian improved quickly. I played tennis since I was seven, and tried in vain to scale the mechanics of my court game to fit the table. On the court I behaved temperamentally like John McEnroe, but table tennis gave my antics no quarter.
I suspect table tennis is what set me on the unlikely trajectory beyond the gravity of my parents’ influence, and toward poetry. It’s more conventional to blame hip-hop, I know, but I am so easily distracted that music ruins my concentration. If I overhear so much as a grainy samba beat sifting through the receiver when my wife is on hold with the bank, my mind goes dark and I begin snatching at notes in the air like they’re rungs on a dream ladder carrying me to Elysium. I’ve never been diagnosed, but the rambunctious gene is dominant in my family. Holiday dinners my aunt laces the collard greens with Ritalin, otherwise family gatherings start to look like the Chuck E. Cheese’s in Brooklyn after two families show up with conflicting reservations. How else in the midst of that chaos would I have acquired focus enough to pick a handful of words, without purpose, off the communal tongue?
One summer after I moved to New York I was a teacher’s aid for middle school students in the South Bronx who had been labeled as having emotional and behavioral “challenges.” At one point, one of the students marched around the room on desktops shouting profanities with the pomp of a French naval officer. No one seemed to notice. It made me so anxious I got the hiccups.
When I read the poems they’d all turned in I noticed that many of them had similar handwriting. Tiny lettering crowded against the lines as if the letters were whispering to each other. I was told this was an effect of the kids’ medication. It occurred to me that the density of their script might not signal diminished capacity or reticence. I imagined it being a proactive attempt to vacuum unnecessary elements out of the field of attention. The theory slowly setting up shop in my head like an Abba song was that attention in a restless mind is optimized when the frame of concern excludes all non-essential data. Rather than let them get their ya-ya’s out wilding around the room, I decided to lead them in a group activity devoid of frill and fluff. My hope was also to make them conscious of their physical presence by focusing on the economy of motion. I wanted to put them, bodily, inside their own circumscribed fields of attention. With the model of table tennis in mind, I had the kids push desks together and we folded sheets of paper into triangular wads to play finger football. Not what you were expecting? Yeah, I tried to work something out that was more ping-pong-like, but all I could find was a blue rubber handball. That shit turned ugly real fast.
I’ve also noticed a correlation between literary ambition and table tennis at artist colonies. The most committed, the players who won’t be distracted from an evening of table tennis by a flirtatious Riesling or an obscure art film are usually the ones who would most easily strike a Faustian bargain in service of their craft. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, Hart Crane, surely these were the great Anglophone players of table tennis. Yes, perhaps this is what conditioned me for poetry, my weekday routine that summer after tenth grade. Give me the nine by five field of a ping-pong table and I am instantly pacified, instantly grounded. I’ve always found it comforting.
To say my games with Nube were epic misses the point. And perhaps literary ambition is too loaded a term as well. Suggestions of scale do both poetry and table tennis a disservice. There’s often some joker in a creative writing class who claims writing poems is easier than prose because poems are “short.” And I was once guilty of believing table tennis was a miniature, portable version of tennis. Brevity should not suggest diminished intensity. Nor should a desire to precede one’s peers invite presumptions of worthiness.
Poetry and table tennis are games of reflex. They are played optimally—and play is the operative word—in the synaptic space where consciousness has no time to abstract into self-recrimination. There is no beauty in the reflex itself, there is beauty in its timing. That is, there is beauty in the relation between stimulus and reflex. In poetry, language is the stimulus we are responding to as it accommodates and counters our efforts.
Language is not a thing to be defeated. Neither is one’s opponent in table tennis, for that matter. Misunderstanding this leads to misconceptions about the nature of ambition among poets and Olympic athletes alike. (I’m reminded of the lines from Kipling that appear above the player’s entrance at Wimbledon: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/ And treat those two imposters just the same.”) Poets and Olympians are in deep communion with their contexts of engagement. The difference is that poets are obliged to determine the size of the playing field as well as the conduct of play appropriate within it. Literary conventions, genres and received forms like the sonnet exist to mitigate our anxiety in the face of infinite possibility in this regard. But striking this balance is not a simple matter of deciding between the boot cut and the straight leg. You have to know how to wear the garment. In other words, staying in that harmonic mode is the real challenge.
Take for example, George Herbert’s seventeenth century poem, “Easter Wings.” The poem is tricked out with a series of redundancies so we can’t possibly sleep on the message: it’s a hall of mirrors. In case we miss the point in passive reading, we get it dramatically enacted before our eyes. Even if we hear the poem muddled in the voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher, the cadence conveys the speaker’s spiritual diminution. The speaker’s process of surrendering the ego culminates (“Most poore” and “most thinne”) with a corresponding embrace of salvation and redemption, a process that is described, again, metrically, rhetorically and typographically in the poem’s ebbing and expanding lines. Finally, that the poem’s symmetrical stanzas happen to look like a pair of wings is to my mind its least salient achievement. So much balance is meant to suggest the presence of divine genius, grace, etc., but it also credits Herbert’s world record to his capacity for submission rather than his domination of the game. You have to know (and respect if not love) your opponent. The player is the game.
His real name is Arthur. I call him The Nubian Prince ironically because that fool stays on ethnic probation. I reminded him of this as he fished around in the milk crate where we stored the equipment. He tossed me my paddle, arguing that behavioral norms are defined in relation to the cultural and economic class with which one chooses to identify. “Duh,” I said. That he could flout our norms so completely was a sign of how deeply he had internalized them. “Poppycock!” I shouted because I didn’t know what else to say.
Nube was scrupulous about his shit. Nube had opinions on the merits of the Chinese versus Japanese pen holds, the thickness of the pad on the paddle blade relative to ball spin. His paddles were layered with varying polymers that, according to him, would respond isometrically to the ball’s “coefficient of restitution,” which gives the skilled player greater control over the “axis of rotation.” We both knew he was windbagging, but it served our mutual vanity to pretend something had been said and something understood. The end result was that he crushed the ball every opportunity he got. Once he figured out the topspin, sometimes fattening his stroke in delayed gratification in order to return the ball from well below the level of the table, the ball usually looped inbounds with such sawtoothed fury that I had no choice but to block, holding my paddle in the universal posture of the punked. But he continued to grow, presenting new shots like curios and interesting riddles for me to solve, forcing me to grow in turn.
My paddle: a simple wooden job with a pad textured like a jelly jar opener glued to each side. I may not have been so particular about it, but I wasn’t disinterested either. The Spartans didn’t keep shit simple because they didn’t know any better. I, too, had a rationale: I didn’t want my paddle to feel like a chunk of the gymnasium floor. I liked to feel the click of the ball making contact, like the shutting of a humidor or a camera aperture or a quality pen top. I could do it all day. Click, click, click, tiny shock waves caught in the web of carpal bones. I used a simple handshake grip and could feel the imaginary elastic that connected my paddle to the ball lengthen and tense as with each forehand I led Nubie through the shadowed recesses of his garage. We competed in mirrored gestures, gestures altered in the translations our bodies made. Such intimacy, such rare and peaceful focus the game affords. The joy in reciprocity.
We spent so much time together I’m surprised his mom didn’t accuse us of being on drugs. Maybe she did and Nube ran interference. When the cops caught him, they knew Nubie wasn’t alone. But he never told anyone who it was that got away.
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