Sunday, March 15, 2009

March Madness . . .

Poets and Basketball

Bernadette Mayer & Anne Waldman
The Basketball Article

(Angel Hair Books, 1975 [first edition])

(Angel Hair Books, 1978 [second edition])

(Shark Books, 2006 [third edition])

Let me start with a fast-break outlet pass of a claim: while there’s plenty of well known or seriously interesting poems in whole or in part about baseball, there’s hardly any such poems about basketball.

And by “hardly any” I really mean “almost none.”

For baseball, there are – just off the top of my head – poems by Marianne Moore, Richard Brautigan, Jack Spicer, and Ferlinghetti, two entire collections of such poems by Tom Clark, and of course Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat.” And then there are the poet-baseball projects like Yo-Yos With Money (Ted Berrigan and Harris Schiff) and Sports (Kenneth Goldsmith), which I wrote about last year (click through to go).

But when it comes to basketball poems, dang if I can think of any. Unless I’ve shot an airball here (and please let me know if I have), maybe it has to be concluded that the particular pace and grace of hoops just doesn’t inspire poets in the same way as “The National Pastime.”

However, there is a notable exception: The Basketball Article, a 1975 collaboration by Bernadette Mayer and Anne Waldman. This prose piece of approximately fifteen mostly long paragraphs was a commissioned and written as a piece of magazine journalism. But after the two poets turned it in, editors rejected it. The two then that same year had it published separately, as a stapled-at-the-sides 8.5 by 11 inch chapbook (the original edition had only 100 copies and is now rare; the 2006 re-print is available, at only five bucks!). I consider The Basketball Article a kind of prose poem, and a mighty fine one at that.

The Basketball Article is a prose poem for at least two reasons. First is its mode of presentation. Mayer and Waldman approach their subject mostly indirectly, to say the least. One paragraph begins, “We sit down to watch a few Knicks games.” There then follows not a summary of the games seen, or even a description of highlights, but observations about the alcohol preferences of a team’s general manager, a comment about what somebody said regarding whether a particular player likes to fuck, statements about Bill Walton, the FBI, and Patty Hearst, sentences about the two poets’ refusal to stand for the national anthem, athletes’ reading habits, or lack thereof, and at least a half-dozen other matters. Obviously, straight-forward theme topic sentence paragraphic development isn’t the approach here at all. Instead, Mayer and Waldman go the way of associational, juxtapositional, or (if you wanna keep it simple) experimental poetic writing.

Another quality that’s almost purely poetic is the range of matters covered by the two writers and the speed at which those matters appear. New allusions and topics often burst forth out of every sentence. Mayer and Waldman give us you-are-there court-side observational stuff (the cursing of the players, their size, where they stash their gum, etc.), the strangeness of arenas in which the pro game is played (like something out of Godard’s Alphaville, they say, “an end-of-the-world city on another planet where people say yes when they mean no and no when they mean yes”), the difference between New Jersey and NYC spectators, and a theory that Aztecs, not James Naismith, invented the game. They give us Oscar Robertson (the “Big O”), a bit about street ball at the legendary Sixth Ave and Fourth Street court in the Village, a long riff on what happens when men and women play hoops together (including the significance of female breasts therein), thoughts concerning how pro players’ mesmerizing grace gets institutionalized, a mention of the electro-galvanic stimulator the Nets bought for Julius Erving’s knees, and lots lots more. The article-poem is so all over and has such a heavy specific-density, all in a weird-terrific kind of way, it’s no wonder it works so well as prose-poetry.

My favorite part of The Basketball Article is a paragraph in which Mayer and Waldman suggest combining poetry and basketball, and riff on how such a contest-game might be played:
We imagine a great conference of poets with trainers, doctors and coaches, keeping them in fine physical and mental shape. We wonder what their work would be like. Attendance 20,239. The poets perform in gym suits, showing their long lean legs and muscular shoulders. The older poets comment on the game or go into business. One poet is the center, there are two forwards and two guards but anyone can score. The center, generally, must simply try to get the words away from the opposing team of poets and the guards bring them down-court to be used. [. . .] Some poets are booed for using the language awkwardly, others cheered for coming up with a new style of play. [. . .] A foul is called on any poet who deranges the language. A poet in a state of ecstasy makes a 3-point play. Fouled in the act of writing by personal insults, the poet would go to the line.
I love the double-meaning of “line” in the last sentence, and love the whole idea. Forgive me (here comes the “March Madness” part of this), but Mayer and Waldman’s imagined game got me thinking: if there were such a game as the two imagined, who would I want on my fantasy team of poet-hoopsters, and why? Just limiting it to poets, dead or alive, who published work after about 1950, and putting on the roster as many currently active poets as possible, here’s who I came up with:

At center, out of Black Mountain College, Charles Olson! This can’t be much of a surprise, eh? Olson literally was a towering figure at six feet, seven inches and a modernist slam-dunker of the most powerful kind. In addition, his obvious nickname here – “Maximus,” natch – has a marvelous poet-gladiator ring that seems certain to intimidate opponents and fire-up the fans’ imagination.

As for point guard, have you seen how Jessica Smith puts words and letters all over the page, in her collections bird-book (2001) and Organic Furniture Cellar (2006)? Here’s an example from the latter book (click on image to enlarge):

Smith with her words really opens up the poem-court and spreads the poem-floor. That’s exactly perfect for creating all kinds of lanes and spaces for poem-ball passes and give-and-go metaphor action with her poet team-mates, and to draw the spectators into the action.

I’d also sign up Langston Hughes, the Hughes of the 1951 collection Montage of a Dream Deferred. Yes, that collection when published and mostly ever since has been criticized as overly sentimental and too naive. But man the rhythms in there, the be-bop energy, the swing and jive and blues, the bits of Harlem street-life, all would I think score big in this imagined hoop-poem game. He’s my shooting guard.

One of pro basketball’s greatest all-time players was known as “The Mailman” because game after game, year after year, he “delivered” points and rebounds no matter what. For this kind of high caliber consistency, I gotta go with Ron Silliman. In this respect, his five or six blog posts a week are merely emblematic of something much larger: see his the Alphabet (1000 plus pages collecting poems written and mostly published over the last almost thirty years), The Age of Huts (over 300 pages with even more poetry from the same general period), and Tjanting (a bit over 200 pages), for truly prodigious examples of how Silliman for decades has brought it poetically day after day after day. Also: Ron’s not afraid to throw his elbows. He’d make an excellent poet-power forward.

Rounding out the starting five is Lisa Jarnot at small forward. Anyone remember Jamaal (aka Keith) Wilkes, the superb college and pro player from a few decades ago? On the court, Wilkes was so friggin’ natural and smooth in all parts of the game that he was known as “Silk.” Jarnot’s writing is marked by that same kind of natural grace and splendor (see her Night Scenes (Flood Editions, 2008)). Of course, Wilkes worked hard to make it seem easy and it surely is the same with Jarnot. Also, if you’re a regular reader of LisaBlog, you know that Jarnot can throw a few elbows herself, if necessary.

So okay that’s the starting five, and it’s a beautiful group. But all teams need a strong bench, and the exceptional squads – think here of the 1974-1975 NBA champion Golden State Warriors – use all 12 people on the roster. My “sixth man” would be John Olson. That guy, poetically speaking, can light it up. I’d also add Garrett Caples – as his Complications (Meritage Press, 2007) shows, he brings a street-honed and PhD smart hip-hop verve to his word-play – and Lew Welch, who in addition to having almost peerless poem-making skills could run the court better than about anyone (Welch in sixth grade was county champion in the 50 yard dash and in college ran the quarter-mile in under 50 seconds).

And then there are the substitutes who because of their unique characteristics create serious match-up problems for the opposing team, the way that for example Manute Bol, one of basketball’s tallest players ever at 7' 7", or Muggsy Bogues, the NBA’s all-time shortest (5' 3"), would create havoc when they came on the court. Well, when it comes to poet-players who would confound the opposition with their uniquely brilliant poem-shots, I’d pick Susan Howe (particularly for her overlaid, tipped, upside-down and half-effaced texts, as in “Thorow” (click to see!)) and Aram Saroyan for his mind-blowing minimal poems (e.g., “eyeye”). Those two would keep folks off-balance in wonderfully different but similarly effective ways.

Rodrigo Toscano and Katie Degentesh would round out my fantasy poet-ball team. Word-energy seems to burst from these two and, among other things, both can also make a high percentage of damn funny poem-shots. Here’s a sentence from Toscano’s “Welcome To Ominum Dignitatem” in To Leveling Swerve (Krupskaya 2004) (note: all CAPS in original):
And here’s the choice opening stanza of Degentesh’s “Sometimes I Feel As If I Must Injure Either Myself Or Someone Else,” from her conceptual flarf (and so much more) collection The Anger Scale (Combo Books 2006):
We are nearing the time when Christ is come
to make recordings for the blind and dyslexic
in Hawaii, and sees nothing but very plain prose.
The dear little devoted fellow! He worshiped that kitten.
The creative biting (satirical) and/or prankster-goof humor of these two poet-hoopsters would be great for team chemistry, both on and off the court, and the two would score points with their work too.

Quite a roster, eh? Hire William Carlos Williams as the team doctor, and we’re ready to go full-court with anyone. Anywhere, anytime.

Let’s run!

End note: The scan of the top of this post is of the original Angel Hair Books edition of The Basketball Article. The photo on that cover also appears on the Shark Books edition that is currently in print and available (only five bucks, click here!). The youngish man in the photo is Bill Walton, famous basketball player. My research suggests that the woman next to Walton is Micki Scott, the long-time partner (and eventually wife) of Jack Scott, and that the photo was taken at a 1975 press conference involving the Scotts, Walton and the FBI search at the time for then-fugitive Patty Hearst. Although The Basketball Article touches very briefly upon Walton and Hearst and the FBI search, I hypothesize the photo was used on the cover because of its poetic impact (check out the intensity of Walton’s eye and Scott’s close-lipped, see-through-you look) and because it features a woman looking at a man-hoopster, an image that mirrors what happens in the book: women looking at (writing about) the male-only sport of professional basketball.


chippens said...

Great post! You're right--it's not often you see poetry and basketball mixed. I actually have a Web site that's devoted to both poetry and basketball (at least in March). Entry is open for this year's NCAA tournament if anyone is interested! It's free, and there are prizes. Or you can just stop by to read some of the poetry chapbooks and other posted writing.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

You forgot Ed Baker, minimalist master than whom there's nobody "leaner and stronger": whose Stone Girl poetics/art is among the very very best out there.

You forgot Ed Baker.