Robert Frost’s Drop Shot

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?

Henry Hart
Henry Hart

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!”

Wm Pritchard
William Pritchard

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.”

Jessica Treadway
Jessica Treadway

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.

Keith Clark
Keith Clark

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.”

Carol Henderson
Carol Henderson

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

Philip Holland

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!

Robert Frost

Running: A Love Story

I don’t see myself as a runner. I don’t have the stretchy body that real runners have or a deep need to push myself off the cliff of my physical abilities. Nor do I have the long-distance runner’s gaze—that gaze that manages to be both direct and, well, distant. Real runners are in love with the miles they log, a fact they don’t try to hide. I’m not like that.

And yet I’ve run ever since I was thirteen or fourteen. During the cosmic blip, otherwise known as my Pennsylvania girlhood, I used to run around the back roads of our little town. I would set out from the backyard, pass the treehouse and my basketball hoop, and take off. There was little traffic except for the occasional annoying truck. This was during the summertime, and I was pretty much alone with the clomp of my basketball shoes on the pavement and the scent of dandelions and other roadside weeds. When I reached an area that had the distinct feeling of nowhere, I turned around and went home.

If I ran in a different direction, through the town and past the university, I would quickly come to the open spaces of Pennsylvania Dutch country. In my memory those fields are striped green and gold. The horse-drawn buggies with their orange triangles instead of license plates are clip-clopping up ahead. I’m in awe but getting nervous because I’ve left my world behind, close by though it is. If I kept running, would I end up in the arms of a bearded, behatted farmer, never to see my family or my school or my cats again? Time to turn back.

I’ve run in every town I’ve lived in since then, in Virginia, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and now in Virginia again. I’ve run in the morning, at dusk, at midday, in boiling heat and sudden downpours. Every once in a while, I’ve run with a friend by my side and that has always been more fun. These days I usually run alongside strangers at the gym.

About fifteen years ago, when I discovered I could run on a treadmill without falling off, I knew I had met a worthy adversary. The treadmill is wonderful and awful all at once. It is built to irk.

I step up onto it, hit quick start, and set the speed to a brisk walking pace. After a few minutes, I increase the speed—beep, beep, beep, beep!—so I’m jogging but not experiencing any distress.

By all rights, this is where I should stay. There’s nothing wrong with a steady pace that allows for normal thoughts. But I guess there’s a tiny masochist living in my hand, because I always reach out and increase the speed yet again.

At first I’m exhilarated. My feet are pounding on the moving belt with the same thunder of my old Converse sneakers on the Pennsylvania pavement.

Then things deteriorate. My breathing has a hitch in it, the drone of the machine is alarming, the length of time I’ve been running is not notable, and I’m pumping my arms and legs for dear life. I’m depressed and desperate, yet still I run. My own hand does not reach out to save me.

Until it does. For my dear life matters more than clocking another half mile at what feels like an insane speed. I have nothing to prove: I’m on a treadmill in Culpeper, Va., not approaching Heartbreak Hill in Boston, and I’ve finished my race against myself.

A rather short race at that. I drink some water and pace around the gym. I drive home, hungry and pleased with myself, knowing I will sleep well tonight.

I’ll never run more than a few miles at a time. I’ll never have that long-distance runner’s look in my eye. Just thinking about a marathon, to say nothing of the countless hours of preparation, makes my knees ache.

But as the Boston Marathon approaches, I must say, I admire those runners.

What I see in the best of them is a singular dedication and resolve–the same thing I admire in poets like Denise Levertov and Adrienne Rich. For their own reasons, great runners and great poets go beyond reason. They are beautiful and human, and this is what they do whether anyone is watching or not.

But in person or on TV, we do get to watch the Boston Marathon. We can see those runners in their act of creation. And when they win, it is our good fortune to see the world’s most dazzling smiles.

Rita Jeptoo
Rita Jeptoo