The Great Game
By Amit MajmudarFebruary 14, 2022
To make it. It will be there
Even if we never
Let it lead us
To the still and hidden place,
The willed, unbidden place
Where poems meet us.
I’m drawing us
I’m drawing us
Inside a circle
Of myth and memory and art,
Membrane that seals the beat
Inside the heart
Inside the fetus.
This is not a poem,
But it’s not a treatise,
Either. It’s a poem’s
Long lost brother,
Here to greet us
In the momentary circle
Where we read each other.
IN THE BEGINNING was the rhythm. The rhythm was a row of buckets in the shapes of sounds. These sounds were syllables of different dimensions in weight or length: unstressed and stressed, or short, short, long. You tossed words into the rhythm from across the playing field. The playing field measured exactly the distance between your mouth and someone else’s ear.
It was a game. You might say, “I’m working on this,” or refer to a work-in-progress, or a book of poems as a “project,” or call a poet’s books “works” — but deep down, you knew this was different from waiting tables or preparing a PowerPoint for the quarterly meeting. That was work, and if you could get time off from it, you would play this game.
The game evolved over time, like rounders into baseball, rugby into tackle football, or alchemy into chemistry. So at the start of this word-sport, the sounds that landed successfully and snugly in the rhythm had to spell a god’s name, and those were hymns. Later, they had to spell the mythistory of a civilization, and Homer was the star player of the Western conference. Sounding love or war was a sure way to advance to the next round.
It was all in good fun, but it was always a competition, against other players or against a player dead for four centuries or against the limitations of your own voice, your own clumsy fingers typing on the keyboard, the gameboard. It was all in good fun, which is why it was so frustrating when you couldn’t make the poem catch the thing, the idea, the emotion. All your throws were off the mark. Your words lay scattered like war dead on a field, a screen, a snow-covered page. It was all dead serious. It was all in play.
WHAT PLAY IS
In Homo Ludens: On the Play-Element in Culture (1938), Dutch historian Johan Huizinga laid it out nicely. Play is:
a free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life as being “not serious,” but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings that tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means.
He’s describing play, but he’s also describing poetry. You can split that paragraph up phrase by phrase and see how. Poets stand quite consciously outside “ordinary life” because we choose to use, quite consciously, extraordinary language. No matter how “serious” a poem is, to the cold-eyed realists writing poetry is superfluous because No profit can be gained by it. It doesn’t matter if the poetry is about Plath’s issues with her father or Celan’s “Black milk of dawn.” Poetry is considered, by the majority of the population, intrinsically silly and vain. And yet it absorbs intensely and utterly the poet and the reader, the happy few devotees of this art. Poetry proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space, the boundaries of poetic form, according to fixed rules, although which rules are fixed can vary.
Does poetry promote the formation of social groupings? Any “tribe of poets” would say it does. Poets may not surround themselves with secrecy deliberately, but our general obscurity may serve the same purpose. We stress our difference from the common world, that is, the world of prose, through the line break, if nothing else.
The word “play” is like the word “myth.” If you say “myth,” it can imply something sacred. For a reader of Joseph Campbell, for someone versed in Jungian or Freudian thought, or for a Hindu like myself, myth is profound to the point of bottomlessness. But you can call something a myth in a dismissive, contemptuous way, too: “There were never aliens at Area 51, that’s just a myth.” Play, similarly, has two possible connotations, the trivial, superficial one and the deep-to-bottomless one. When I write “play” in this essay, I’m not talking Tetris. I am not “playing around,” and neither was Johan Huizinga, and neither was Robert Frost:
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.
Frost wrote those four lines of poetry by taking on restrictions. He knew that only restrictions can free us from prose: voluntary, arbitrary, strategic restrictions. Frost decided that he would deploy four stressed syllables in each of four lines, and that the fourth and 12th stressed syllable would rhyme, and that the eighth and 16th stressed syllable would rhyme and alliterate, and that all four lines would comprise a single sentence. Taken apart like that, it seems an absurd, perhaps insuperable set of obstacles and obligations. Yet athleticism welcomes such rules — Frost once said that he would as soon write poetry without such rules as “play tennis with the net down,” an apt comparison with a game. A tennis player insists on hitting the ball within a 23.77-by-8.23-meter box drawn on the ground, over an obstacle 91.5 centimeters high: arbitrary, exacting, standardized measurements that are the meter and rhyme scheme, the syntax that makes tennis tennis, just as rhythm makes music music. A ball that lands outside the court is out and interrupts play; the players return to their places across the court and start playing another point. What sound does a musical note make if it’s nowhere on the stave? Every sport is a verse form, and every verse form is a musical instrument. We poets play sonnet, we play blank verse, we play triolet. We welcome the rules because the rules make a game a game.
PLAYING ON, AND PLAYING WITH, WORDS
Poetic forms, meter, and rhyme may be less fashionable games today, but assonance and alliteration and anaphora, couplets and tercets and quatrains still create the liberating restrictions of play in contemporary versecraft. Wordplay and allusion are the two ways in which play enters poetry most obviously. Wordplay announces its play-element through its name — and so does “allusion,” since it comes from the Latin word for play with.
Allusion is the best example of how serious play can be. When John Donne in one of his sermons alludes to the Bible, he is “playing with” the Bible, but his message is aimed at the very souls of his listeners. Likewise, when Hemingway alludes to one of Donne’s sermons for the title of one of his best novels, his allusion is meant to increase the gravity and high seriousness of For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Even the much maligned pun has exalted, supremely serious origins. Long before we began rolling our eyes at puns, the Book of Genesis punned in Hebrew when naming the first man. Created from earth, adamah, was … Adam. And of course, Shakespeare inserts puns into the gravest, tensest situations, not for comic relief. With the stage in darkness, the Third Murderer asks, having just struck Banquo dead: “Who did strike out the light?”
Just as the interface where two neurons connect is a synapse, the interface between two books or poems is an allusion. A more complex brain has more synapses; a more complex book, like Ulysses, has more allusions. But it’s not as though complexity is the only goal a writer has. You can make your work too allusive, too hyperlinked to carry out the very simple function of communication, ending up with a complicated tangle of wires and transistors that doesn’t actually perform any function. Joyce’s follow-up, Finnegans Wake, was, arguably, such a book.
It’s a warning against making too much of any one approach or concept when we study or practice literature — even play. Play is not the only thing that makes literature what it is. The opposite of play, though, unmakes literature all the time. The opposite of play is plod. Plodding prose, plodding thought, rhythmless lifeless stuff you can’t step to: that’s plod, and it’s what poets strive, instinctively, to avoid.
THE LUDIC ILLUSION
When we say theatrical illusion, we’re using words that come from theasthai, Greek for “to see,” and illudere, Latin for “to mock or to deceive.” In its noun form: “delusion of the mind, apparition.” The word itself derives from ludus, literally, game or play. The theatrical illusion is, etymologically, a “game with visible apparitions.”
Is it any wonder, then, that the most revered poet in English is the dramatist Shakespeare? The most revered poet in Sanskrit, the dramatist Kalidasa? The most revered work of the most revered German poet, the verse drama Faust? Eliot, Yeats, and Walcott all daydreamed about creating a poetic drama for the 20th century.
Poetic drama only flourishes in specific rare circumstances. And those circumstances have to do, in part, with another aspect of play: competition. Remember that drama itself originated, in the West, at the Dionysian competitions. Euripides and Sophocles weren’t just contemporaries. They were rivals. Three tragedies would be followed by a farcical satyr play as a chaser, all in elaborate meters: the serious and the light, combined in the poem-play.
No wonder the great verse dramatists so often show up in pairs: Goethe and Schiller, Lope de Vega and Calderón, Corneille and Racine. Elizabethan London was a city crowded with several playing companies, each with its own stable of playwrights, the King’s Men, the Admiral’s Men, the Earl of Leicester’s Men, the Children of the Chapel, Lord Strange’s Men. Shakespeare started out trying to beat Marlowe at history plays and went on to compete, every season, against the other playwrights of his day. Each season’s new plays, in their quest for crowds, competed for their continued existence, like biological organisms competing for resources and mates.
THE CHARMED CIRCLE
A stage, like a tennis court or a quatrain, is a cordoned-off area where the playing takes place. The theatrical illusion dovetails with Huizinga’s idea that play needs “its own proper boundaries of time and space,” a charmed circle where the magic holds. That circle must not be penetrated by the outside, ordinary world. Two realities exist simultaneously, and usually not independently: the reality inside the poem and the “real life” of the poet. The player on the field and the player’s personal life.
We call the one-page-or-less poems commonly written today “lyric poetry,” but the old distinction between lyric, epic, and dramatic poetry has never been accurate. Lyric poetry usually involves a persona, if only the persona of the poet. Like actors (or “players,” as Shakespeare’s age used to call them), we poets put on a mask and change voice: I am who I am, but get me alone with a blank page, and I play poet, I ham it up. Every lyric is a dramatic monologue, even if — especially if — the poet claims the poetic “I” is the same as the personal “I.” This is why it’s often such a letdown to meet some poet you like in person. You know the poet as they are inside the charmed circle of their own chalking. To meet them in person is to meet them outside the charmed circle, unmagically.
Sometimes the “real life” of the artist augments the art, like Plath’s suicide or Dante’s exile. The biological poet becomes a character speaking the poems, regardless of whether the poem is autobiographical or not. Most of us keep Keats in mind when we read one of his Odes: the picture of a poet coughing up blood and dying tragically young. This backstory reinforces the magic inside the charmed circle.
Sometimes, though, the backstory can do the opposite. When a poet anthologized in the Best American Poetry turned out to be a white man publishing pseudonymously as an Asian female, his poem changed for the worse in the perception of many readers. The poet’s racial transgression (etymologically, a “moving-across”) made his poem seem fraudulent and cynical, destroying the magic it had created before. James Frey wrote a beloved, Oprah-endorsed memoir that proved to be shot through with lies; reality withered the magic yet again. The author of the Harry Potter books has lost fans and readers over her ideas on gender; not even Rowling’s formidable magic could hold. The spectator’s knowledge of misconduct outside the magic circle — whether ethical, sexual, or just ideological — can travel with writers into the circle where they play the game. It can render the circle unmagical.
Consider: Would a talented writer get invited to literary festivals and readings if he were a registered sex offender? Probably not — even if he wrote twice as much, twice as well. What if an even more talented writer went off on Twitter rants against immigrants, Black people, transgender rights, feminists, and liberals? No doubt her publisher’s interest in publishing her, and her readership’s interest in reading her, would evaporate. No review would fail to mention her unacceptability, and she would be kept off college campuses and bookshelves. Readers would process anything she wrote differently, and even if they saw merit in it, they would see that merit as an example of the uncoupling of inner worth and poetic ability. Ingenuity would come to seem mere cleverness, and cleverness a sign of soullessness. For many readers, the exact same poems or stories, when read with the author’s moral and ideological vileness in mind, would “lose their charm.” That holds because all art, being play, must take place on a playground, a charmed circle: the court, the field, the pitch, the page.
ALIENS WATCHING BASEBALL
What is going on down there, on that court? What is going on down there, on that page?
Some of the best page poetry remains enigmatic to people outside the circle of poetry-lovers. That circle, historically, used to be even narrower, before mass literacy and the human population explosion. A minor debut novelist today can dwarf the absolute number of readers that Petrarch had in his own lifetime.
Why is it enigmatic? It may have to do with the rules we impose on ourselves as players. An extreme analogy might clarify the idea. Imagine that you were an alien visiting earth and knew nothing at all about baseball. Why are those humans just standing there? Why is the human with the stick squatting in that odd way? How does that human in the center decide when to throw the ball? Why are they running in circles once the ball gets hit? Why do they fail to run when the ball gets hit so it goes behind the human with the stick?
Your confusion would destroy any potential enjoyment. You wouldn’t have any sense of tension, even if it were tied at the bottom of the ninth in the last game of the World Series, because you wouldn’t know what to expect in the first place. You would figure they were playing a game, but you would be outside it.
So it is for poetry for the majority of readers. Poetry engages in linguistic behaviors that seem strange, if not perverse, to those who do not know the rules that govern its playfulness. This holds true regardless of whether a poem makes a paraphraseable, prosaic sense — if it does, why insert all those line breaks?
In contemporary America, not every poet is capable of appreciating or enjoying every kind of poetry being written. There are cliques or schools in contemporary poetry that play a game whose rules are foreign to me, and I take no enjoyment in watching them play it. Nothing punctuated or capitalized, each phrase seemingly independent from the ones before or after it, not even some phonetic principle by which these seemingly random words follow one another: Why are these words sequenced this way? I have had such thoughts when reading some of my more “experimental” contemporaries, all sorts of alien-observing-baseball thoughts. I have reflected that ancient Sumerian poetry pleases me more than work written by some of my countrymen alive at the same time as I, and that AI could produce finer work. But I am well aware that my own work, in the eyes of an avant-garde editor, would seem too linear, overdetermined, retrograde in its self-delighting forms. Also, that many of my more irregular poems would not pass muster with a strict, syllable-counting formalist in a bowtie. I know also that we could pool all our poems, from the most “accessible” to the most “difficult,” and my highly educated radiologist colleagues would be largely unable to follow or enjoy our games, regardless of which rules we selected for ourselves.
PICKING A RULEBOOK
Every poet, even the supposedly unruly Beat Poet (often, following Whitman, quite enamored of anaphora), chooses rules of play. At our given moment in time, there are several rulebooks out there for poets. You can pick any one. Back through literary history, the preferred rulebook has changed frequently — one moment, rhymed couplets; a couple of centuries later, free verse. Consequently, what counts as “good” in poetry varies over time, and in our time.
To enjoy the game being played in front of you, you have to recognize the rules by which the poet is playing. You recognize the rules in two ways. First, you recognize them in the very basic sense of pattern recognition. You have to grasp the principles according to which the words have been sequenced. Once you can tell what the rules are, you can tell whether that poet is playing the game well or not.
The other way you recognize the poet’s game is the same way one country recognizes another. When the United States “recognizes” a given nation-state, it’s a way of saying, Yes, you are legitimately governed. In late 20th-century America, many academic poets thought that meter and rhyme were illegitimate forms of governance for contemporary poetry. They recognized the pattern, but they didn’t believe that good contemporary poetry could be written that way.
Poetry is play: some play well, others play poorly, but clusters of contemporaries play by different sets of rules. What is wrong with poets being enigmatic to the majority of our countrymen and, in some cases, to each other? If anything, there’s something right about that situation: much of the earliest poetry is riddling — the oracle, the sphinx, the troll guarding the bridge. The enigmatic aspects of a poem, studied and understood, draw readers (some readers, but not others) into the poem’s magic circle. “The Soul selects her own Society,” says Dickinson, “Then — shuts the door.”
Writing is play, but it’s not a game of skill alone. Poetry is a game of skill and a game of chance at the same time. The best poets use skill to make their own luck. This is why, historically, some of the most prolific poets — like Dickinson, or Rumi, or Byron, or Goethe — have welcomed the mandatory ingenuities of rhyme and form. Extemporization is the secret of their output. “The Sufi,” goes an old Persian saying, “is the son of the moment.” I myself have made even this essay up as I’ve gone along, playing with meanings instead of sounds. That is, I composed this essay just as I would a poem: playfully.
Early in the Laws, Plato talks about the origin of play. It originates, he claims, in the innate desire of the young, both animal and human, to jump. Colts jump, testing out their joints, kicking the gravity off their legs. Children used to develop their “habitual tendency of every living creature to leap” into the complex jumps of Double Dutch and the charmed squares of hopscotch chalked on the pavement. Today, I don’t see kids playing those low-tech games anymore, but the jumps have shifted into the avatars in video games, and layups on the basketball court.
What is a jump, really? And what does it have in common with play, with poetry? The jump rejects our earthbound nature. It is a temporary transcendence of gravity. The jump conjures for the jumper an imaginary hurdle out of air. This conjuring of imaginary hurdles is one way to think of poetic form: arbitrary limits on language demand and shape bursts of poetic flight. Every sport infuses action with excitement, tension, and beauty, and it does so by imposing rules on action. Those rules sculpt the speed and force of a Roger Federer or a LeBron James into shapes and patterns that we perceive as aesthetic, balletic, artistic. What defines a tennis court or basketball court are its lines, its limes, its limits. As soon as the ball goes out of bounds, the “magic circle” breaks, and play stops. A “foul” also stops play; this word’s original meaning had to do with rottenness or decay, and in this way connects with spoilsport. Athletic feats are “poetry in motion.” The reverse also holds true: poetry is athletic speech. Athletic and aesthetic are more than just a rhyme; they share a common origin in play.
The poetry of plod is written with the same rules as prose, except for the typographical interference of the line break. It is not the poetry of play. If the only principle of word-organization is that every sentence in the piece meets the demands of good grammar, you are probably reading prose, line breaks notwithstanding. Into this category fall all those chatty first-person anecdotes that build up to epiphanies. You plod through lines that sound exactly like prose because they are prose. When poets sense they are doing this, they write run-on sentences, breaking the rules of conventionally good prose, but it doesn’t save their poems from plodding. Whatever doesn’t effervesce evanescences; it’s one of the few laws of poetry, but it’s draconian.
KINDS OF PLAY
Hermann Hesse’s last novel was The Glass Bead Game. Its alternative title was Magister Ludi, which was itself a pun, because the novel is about a “school” where elite, monk-like teachers play a sublime “game.” It’s a pun because ludi contains both meanings, school and game, and the Glass Bead Game, which Hesse never fully describes, requires the players to play with connections — synapses — among different disciplines, like the Analects of Confucius and the sonatas of Scarlatti. Magister Ludi means both “Master of the School” and “Master of the Game.”
So if we listen to what the Latin language and Hermann Hesse are telling us, every game is also a school. How is a school like a game? Developmental psychologists would say play is the main means by which children learn. Play is a common feature of human and animal maturation; it’s how the young acquire and refine their motor skills.
The earliest kind of play is parallel play, where children play side by side but don’t actually interact or interfere with each other’s play. This corresponds, in poetry, to the unpublishable scribblings by which we find our way into something we can bear presenting to the world. Eventually, we move on to simple social play: you publish your poem, you show it to the world, and the world reads it. But that’s where it ends; the poem is forgotten. These are the poems we publish successfully — and never hear anything about, ever again. The majority of published poetry falls into this category of play.
The final, most advanced form of play is cooperative play. In cooperative play, both children are actively involved in the game. It’s when two kids both take roles in the same make-believe world. For a poet, that’s when your work does more than just delight you and impress other people. The poem takes on meaning and significance in someone else’s life. You’ll often hear poetry readers say that a poem “resonated.” Resonance is a good image for it because resonance is contagious. Consider how a struck and shivering tuning fork evokes a kindred shiver when it’s brought near a still one.
FIGURE (SKATER) OF SPEECH
If every game is a school where we learn by playing, poetry is the ludic literary art that teaches us how to connect. After all, the most important synapse in literature is not allusive, between the present poem and past poems, but direct: between the poet and the reader, now. The page is the playground, the syllables are balls.
Scarcely aware that she’s deploying them, the poet uses stroke and stratagem to game the language into poetry. Some see the rhyme and simile, the artifice, the devious device, while others see a skater on the ice who moves more naturally on blades since she’s beat the difficulty that they made once, her muscles so conditioned that walking in socks and shoes is inefficient. But in the end, it is the ear that knows the knower from the novice, verse from prose — and judges, in a seat beside the rink, the triple axels, lutzes, loops that link emotion, meaning, music in this art that seeks to break no record, just the heart: this art whose love is logos singing sense in forms so fine we give it perfect 10s.
It plays with fire with a will to burn us.
It does for sport what life will do in earnest.
Amit Majmudar is a diagnostic nuclear radiologist, poet, and novelist who lives in Westerville, Ohio, with his wife and three children. His collections of poems are 0º, 0º, Heaven and Earth, Dothead, and What He Did in Solitary. He is also the author of Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary, and the editor of the anthology Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now. Awarded the Donald Justice Prize and the Pushcart Prize, Majmudar's work has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, Best of the Best American Poetry, and the eleventh edition of The Norton Introduction to Literature.
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