Playing tennis with the net down

Playing tennis with the net down
We don’t need no stinking nets!

Robert Frost once famously said “writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”

Although this has been the dominant form of poetry for — um — like a hundred years now, I’ve always been more inclined to playing with the net up.

Not trying to restart long-settled fights or open old wounds. I’m just saying I was introduced from a young age to poetry with meter and rhyme, so that’s what I’ve gravitated towards over the years.

So shoot me.

But I must say, Mary Karr may make a convert of me.

Mary Karr
Mary Karr plays tennis with the net down

Mary Karr is best know for her memoirs, Liar’s Club, Cherry, and Lit. These are wonderful, funny and profound books.  They are credited with — or depending on your point of view — blamed for sparking the current trend of confessional memoirs.

But she would consider herself a poet first, and she has a good point.

Full disclosure:  I went to school with Mary back in the 70s.  And by “going to school with” I mean I was at the same college at the same time for a year or so.

She actually dated — or hung out with .. or whatever we called it back then — one of my roommates back at an off-campus house near Macalester College in St. Paul.

It was a pretty arty scene.  We had musicians and songwriters and artists and aspirants all living in close quarters and striving to find their voices.

This roommate of mine was a freeloading squatter who lived in our attic.  But he was a talented musician, so we gave him a free pass.  He appears on the early pages of Lit, the “Missouri cowboy,” who never seemed to lack female attention.

My primary impression of Mary back in those days:  “This girl is trouble.”

I was most certainly right.  And she would probably agree.

Later she would date David Foster Wallace, and reportedly inspire him to write Infinite Jest.  Or at least, make it good.

But enough with the name dropping.

Mary is one heck of a poet.  Exhibit A:  a poem called “Suicide’s Note: An Annual.”  Pretty universally regarded as being about Wallace after he killed himself.

It’s almost enough to make me consider taking down the net.

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How hard should this be?

T.S. eliot was honored with a 22-cent U.S. postage stamp
T.S. Eliot

I’m really trying to like T.S. Eliot. But mostly because I think I should.

People I respect swear by him. I’ve always found him fussy, obscure and generally not worth the effort.

Now, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his death, Eliot seems to be everywhere. He’s got me surrounded!

Then I read where one of my favorite living writers, Mary Karr, calls Eliot her “Secret Boyfriend,” and I think I need to do more to overcome my benighted condition and check this guy out.

This is the same Mary Karr who wrote her famous essay, “Against Decoration.” As is says on the back of her book of verse, “The Devil’s Tour,” she calls her own poems “‘humanist poems,’ written for everyday readers rather than an exclusive audience — poems that do not require an academic explication to be understood.”

Amen to that, Mary! But how am I to square that with your literary crush on Eliot? He’s the guy who added seven pages of explanatory notes a the end of “The Wasteland.” Notes that really only help if you’ve recently brushed up on your Latin, Italian, French and German!

I realize there are gaps in my education big enough to drive a tanker through.  So the problem must be with me, not Eliot.  So I dip my toe in, gingerly.

He’s got some good lines.  Memorable lines.

April is the cruelest month,

and …

This is the way the world ends/This the way the world ends/This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but with a whimper.

Early in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” he gives us a fantastic extended metaphor of the yellow fog as an animal “rubbing its back on the window panes.”

But then he goes and opens up a poem with this eight-syllable-one-word line:  Polyphiloprogenitive.

Which, sends me scurrying for a dictionary.  And by “scurrying for a dictionary,” I mean I Google the word.  Apparently it means “extremely prolific,” which does not help me much in apprehending the meaning of Mr. Eliot’s poem.

And then there’s his aggravating habit of introducing a poem with a quote from another author.  In French.  Or Latin.  Or Greek.

To the casual observer, it would appear that Mr. Eliot was trying to reduce his audience down to the smallest number possible.  Today, that number must be even smaller, made up of just the handful of professors who to have miraculously managed to get a classical education before our institutions of higher learning went all soft in the head.

I do not want to sound like one of those Know-Nothings who mistrust anyone with book-learnin.’  But I know from my day job that if you want to get your stuff read and understood, you must write clearly and remove the friction for the reader.

Can it be possible to write profound poetry and have people understand it at the same time?

I think I’ll start with “The Hollow Men” and see how it goes.  It’s short and written exclusively in English.  I think I’ve got a fair shot as extracting some meaning from it.  My goal is to gain a little momentum, move on the “The Wasteland,” and then be strong enough for “Ash-Wednesday” by the time we get to week of Easter this year.

We’ll see if my patience holds out.