I’ve often wondered about Robert Frost’s famous line, “I’d as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down.” I know he was making fun of free verse, which he saw as a lawless waste of his time. But wouldn’t playing without a net actually be harder in some ways than the familiar version of the game? And if that is so, doesn’t it follow that writing a truly memorable free verse poem might be more challenging than writing one in traditional meter and rhyme?
For thoughts on this matter and insights into the marvelously crustaceous Frost, I turned to poet and scholar Henry Hart, whose new biography, The Life of Robert Frost, is just out from Wiley Blackwell. “Frost was constantly making wisecracks about free verse poets playing tennis with the net down,” said Hart, a professor of English at the College of William and Mary.
Why did Frost act like free verse was so ridiculous? According to Hart, it was the poet’s way of thumbing his nose at his rivals Ezra Pound and Carl Sandburg, who in their different ways were expert writers of free verse. Frost “tried writing free verse when he was close to Pound in London, and it was prosaic. He knew writing good free verse was difficult—just as writing good formal poetry was difficult. He preferred writing formal poetry because he was a conventional guy, but he also felt he needed the restraint and challenge of form.”
As for Frost the tennis player, I learned that the author of A Boy’s Will and North of Boston had taken up the game as a teenager while working one summer in Maine. It became one of his favorite activities–so long as he won. Hart said, “He was certainly passionate about tennis, but he wasn’t all that good and, as in most things, he was almost pathologically competitive.”
Frost was so competitive that he became furious when his daughter Lesley beat him at the game. According to Hart, the Pulitzer Prize winner stormed off the court shouting, “My children think that because they’re the children of a poet, that gives them license! But what they don’t know or understand or appreciate [is] … I know more about the English language than any man alive.”
I couldn’t resist asking Hart, a longtime tennis player, his thoughts on tennis without a net. It turns out he agrees with Frost: “I suppose playing tennis with the net down or without the net would just be silly.” Still, he reminded me that the subject of his new biography was more concerned with poetry than tennis when making his remark: “Frost was emoting when he used the metaphor to mock free verse; he was just trash talking.”
Not quite done rallying back and forth on this topic, I decided to lob a few questions to several other tennis-playing writers in various genres.
In the case of William Pritchard, the eminent critic and author of Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, I wasn’t sure he played tennis, but something told me that the English professor emeritus at Amherst College had hit a few overhead smashes in his time. He was quick to write back that yes, indeed, he played tennis “until Old Age, etc.” As for playing the game without a net: “I can’t imagine what it would be like to play without a net. No fun, no restriction, what the hell can’t lose!”
Invited to contemplate net-free tennis, Boston-based novelist and short story writer Jessica Treadway responded an hour before she was scheduled to play a match–very much in keeping with her literary flair for timing and suspense. “I don’t think I’ve ever played without a net, but my immediate reaction to the idea of doing so has not to do with whether it’s harder or easier, but with whether I’d want to do it, and the answer is no. The analogy that came to mind was no-ad scoring, which I dislike. To my mind, it is not ‘real’ tennis.”
The author of Lacy Eye and How Will I Know You added, “I also wouldn’t want to do it because I’m used to having a net, and I like the game the way it is. I wonder if someone never having written poetry would prefer free verse because it does seem that it would be easier?”
Keith Clark, professor of English and African & African-American Studies at George Mason University, likewise nixed the idea of playing tennis without a net. Compared to the game he knows and loves, the netless version would be “infinitely dumber and less interesting, mind-numbingly less interesting, in fact.” The author of The Radical Fiction of Ann Petry and Black Manhood in James Baldwin, Ernest J. Gaines, and August Wilson makes time for tennis even during the busiest weeks of the semester at GMU.
As for Frost’s remark, the ever-erudite Professor Clark noted, “I think Frost’s comment speaks to his classical approach to the art of poetry, which eschews radical approaches to form. Not to say that he wasn’t aesthetically daring, but free verse to him seemed a bridge too far.”
Carol Henderson, author of Losing Malcolm and Farther Along: The Writing Journey of Thirteen Bereaved Mothers, made it clear that tennis without a net is not high on her to-do list. “You need the net to gauge distance, height, depth,” said this dedicated tennis player and writing workshop instructor, who secludes herself at home in Chapel Hill, N.C., to watch Grand Slam matches on a large-screen TV. “Playing or watching tennis without a net would be a waste of time.” What about Frost’s quip echoing in English classes across the land? “It’s not an apt metaphor.”
Finally, I turned to Philip Holland of Boston, novelist and author of one of my all-time favorite short stories, “Mentor,” about a club tennis pro trying to teach a singularly unpromising young boy how to play the game. He wrote, “Believe it or not, I have played a few times without a net, in those New England springs in my hometown before the nets went up and our team could officially practice. Here’s what I remember: without a net, the game is much easier on the person hitting the shot, and
much harder on the person receiving the shot. Perhaps you experienced the same, if you ever tried? The person hitting the shot, being much less constrained, could hit it lower and harder, and with all kind of crazy angles, or even lower and softer–and the person receiving had to deal with all that additional variability.”
With the philosophical turn of mind that makes his fiction so engaging, he continued, “I might say this, in response to Mr. Frost. Perhaps like tennis without a net, free verse too might be a bit easier for the author, as it is for the ‘author’ of the shot, but more difficult for the reader, as it is for the receiver of the shot, in that by removing the ‘constraints’ of form, rhyme, meter, etc., not unlike the net, it might free up the poet but make it more difficult on the other end to process his or her offering.”
Weighing all these observations, I suspect a tennis player of the caliber of Serena Williams would see a kind of “ghost net” even if no tangible net were there to guide her shots. She would know when she or her opponent hit the ball even an inch below the ghost net, and she would use her knowledge of the net, even in its absence, to play her best game. On a parallel note, various critics have written about the ghost of meter lurking within exemplary free verse. Truly expert free verse–for instance, the later poems by Adrienne Rich and just about everything by Lucille Clifton–makes use of meter (and rhyme) when it suits the needs of the poem. In short, Frost’s famous comment may say more than he realized about the subtle skills and awareness involved in writing free verse. Deuce point, Mr. Frost!