Thursday, June 19, 2008

Tennis, Anyone?

Never been much for tennis. I admire the skill and stamina of the major players, and watch matches on television once in a great while, but my own few attempts at learning the game were painfully ludicrous. I was and am more fascinated by the language associated: love, ace, fault, etc., not to forget game/set/match. (Those last words figure in the titles of Len Deighton's best trilogy of spy thrillers, by the way.)

And I did actually get to Wimbledon one year for the familiar late-June/early-July matches, as this brief excerpt from my 1986 travel journal attests:

July 4

Happy Birthday, Miss Liberty. My London fourth was considerably more subdued than the party going on back in New York (per clips shown on the BBC Late News). I read, started a new light poem in my present euphoric mood, and then went with some friendly collegiate hostellers ("Shall we invite the old fart along?" "Sure, why not...") out to Wimbledon, which lies just a few Underground stops southwest of Kensington.

For three pounds I got to watch Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver take on two young Brit upstarts who pushed them hard for a time, then knuckled under, 6-3, 6-4. And it was great fun to sit out in the sunshine with the tennis set, stroll among fancy tents and snooty socialites, savor the tha-wock, tha-wock of balls and the genteel greenery of Wimbledon.

But afterwards I was wishing I'd had some firecrackers to drop in amongst 'em all, a bit of Revolutionary rude-boy behaviour to rattle that stiff-upper-lip composure!

So: a journal entry as brief as my interest in tennis. But some years later, I did manage to find a way to express some possibly amusing thoughts, partly stemming from Robert Frost's famous remark (said of William Carlos Williams, maybe), "Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net":

Poets Playing Tennis
(Frost vs. Roethke, Kenney vs. Kinnell)

The game requires a minimum of racket,
especially if one is tightly strung.
Play will be serious, yet play—
and as offhand as life.
Judgment of the court is all.

(As this twosome shows, however,
it is not always clear to what
or whom a player’s
service has been directed.)
The Linesperson does allow a certain latitude.

In fact, many of the best shots fall
beyond the line, revealing
a mastery of the graceful backhand
compliment. And a well-matched volley—
that sweet-spot mix of smash

and return, of ace and silence—
may come to seem some dazzling juggler’s
arc of many balls aloft at once.
After a time, you may distinguish styles.
One, inclined to rush

the net with a whelming yet elegant flurry,
always risks ending
tangled in waffling imagery and stretched circumlocution.
The other tends to lay back
along the baseline, taking the defensive;

still, that one sometimes can be caught flat-
footed, leaning the wrong way.
They play from love
to momentary advantage,
with neither ever managing to gain

control of this deuce of a game;
again and again the sense of it returns
to love and service. In the end, a foot
slips, or a trope; and the result?
A standard entry in the annals of the sport.

Whichever of them leaps the net
lands in territory both have known before
and will again. Theirs is the game
you are not set to match,
you novice of the

line, with your weak-
kneed lobs and stumbling
feet, insensitive
to a fault.

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