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Fast Break to Line Break: Poets on the Art of Basketball
Fast Break to Line Break: Poets on the Art of Basketball

Michigan State University Press, 2012
234 pp., $24.95

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Brett Foster


Fast Break to Line Break

Basketball, poetry, and the meaning of life

It's been a week of anticipation for NCAA basketball fans, who find their brackets mostly busted at this point, deep in the tournament, but with the Final Four games yet ahead. The teams still standing were more or less expected to be here: Kentucky, Ohio State, Louisville, and Kansas, conveniently representing the powerhouse conferences: SEC, Big 10, Big East, and Big 12. A few Cinderella teams stepped up and flashed some heart and defiance, but only briefly. The key storylines have been interesting but not dazzling: the ongoing dominance of Kentucky, the early-exit ignominy of second-seeded Missouri and Duke. North Carolina suffered bad luck with its star player hurt, and Louisville's guards stepped up to lead a come-from-behind victory over Florida. The most impressive story, however, resides in the women's tournament, where 37-0 Baylor's Brittney Griner is vanquishing all opponents, as one might expect from the athletic, 6'8" slam-dunking lady-juggernaut that she is. No matter the given dramatic arcs or emerging stories or personalities of any given tournament, it is always a great time of year.

This year, my tournament viewing experience has been wonderfully augmented, and my appreciation of the game of basketball itself made more thoughtful than it has any right to be, by the essay collection Fast Break to Line Break: Poets on the Art of Basketball. Despite the numerous poets involved, notice that I said "essay"—this is no anthology of poems about basketball memories or epiphanies, but rather a collection of twenty-six essays on just as many (at least) ways that the game often called "poetry in motion" relates to, and is reflected by, poetry-writing. Some of the writers here do reflect on past basketball-themed poems of their own (Margaret Gibson, Quincy Troupe, William Heyen, Marian Haddad) or comment on relevant poetry by others (Yusef Komunyakaa, Diane Ackerman), but these are the exceptions.

The more common approach is a personal essay that narrates the author's past and present experiences playing basketball (including parents who played and coached, or children who play now), and how playing the game exemplifies a certain kind of bodily art-making. Those moments then stand in conversation with the challenges and heights involved with the poetic art. To the book's credit, many of the writers here are women, and by the end, readers may rightly wonder, "Who knew?" Who knew that so many writers felt so passionately, and remained so involved, with this sport? It gives a whole new ring to the phrase "courtly poets." Similarly, the main creative-writing journals recently reported on HooPalousa, a November event at the University of Idaho featuring writers, college basketball players, and representatives from Native American tribes. Sherman Alexie, Jess Walter, and Kim Barnes participated.

Todd Davis, who has cleverly arranged the book, edits the collection as if it itself were a game: it is divided into four quarters or sections, with a halftime and overtime essay added for good measure. The contributor's notes include one for the book's "coach" and a "team roster" of the various essay writers. In a short "pregame" essay, Davis and a co-writer, J. D. Scrimgeour, introduce some of the key connections between hoops and verse: patterns predominate, but invite "improbable improvisations"; a mix of energy and stillness is present, and the fusion of art and body. Both are capable of communal, mythmaking powers. Community is a constant theme here; although writing itself may be a solitary activity, writers often do cherish one another, and I will savor for a long time Scrimgeour's memory of walking off the court with his fellow quillsters and overhearing the coach of a law-school team saying, "You just lost to a bunch of poets!" Those poets who still lace up basketball sneakers, Davis and Scrimgeour write at the outset, appreciate the trajectory of a long three or a precise thread pass just as much as a fitting final line of a poem. Both pursuits, when they are done well, involve an unmistakable sense of wonder.

Each essay adds its unique insight about this shared plane. Jim Daniels argues that poetry could benefit from basketball's sense of urgency ("I think sometimes poetry needs a clock"), and both art and sport can be humbling, even for those successful at these things. Of course this observation applies to life as well: "I think we all have those moments in our lives when we're swinging by the hinges and can go either way …. We need a little luck sometimes to swing the right way." Concluding his strong opening essay, Daniels muses that spectators can enjoy court action so much because of an "emotional transference that happens in any good poem." Stephen Dunn finds a link in a sense of "serious play." Both teach us about limits, even as they stimulate obsessiveness and stubbornness. And great plays elicit the "sudden rightness" of which Wallace Stevens speaks. Margaret Gibson applies the game's rhythms to verbal expression, and describes how she became a spectator of surprising movement. (Easy, when you're watching Ray Allen or Sue Bird during their UConn days!) James McKean describes one player's "loquaciousness of arms and legs and head fakes," and, in turn, when you're in the zone of a poem, remarks Linda Nemec Foster, "all words become pure movement and nothing else." Debra Marquart appreciates the heightened drama that the confines of both poetic form and a basketball court make possible.

Filipino-American Patrick Rosal observes that disputes settled on a basketball court have broader significance: "They are about the position you wish to hold in the world once you have walked away from the court." And Therese Becker offers a spirited defense of the complexity and humanity of the often maligned Bad Boys from the Detroit Pistons' championship years.

Todd Davis' essay is especially persuasive when contemplating such connections among sport, game, and life. The court for him, he writes with intensity, "was a place of action and memory and love, where identity was forged in play after play." Dr. James Naismith, the game's founder, is for Davis part artist and part PE teacher who offered the world a "verse for the body." He is not the only writer here to speak of divine moments experienced, but he best balances that sense of dream or epiphany, presenting basketball as a saving antidote for artists, professors, and all who sit on their butts and live in their heads. But that's not quite it. Or is not only it. Like a good point guard, Davis nimbly covers the floor, turning this focus on the physical into something more. If Gerard Manley Hopkins had been able to contemplate Steve Nash executing a pick-and-roll, Davis says (could there be a more delightful hypothetical to contemplate?), the author of "God's Grandeur" would have appreciated anew the freshness in things, the "sprung rhythm of the flesh." Davis finds a lightness here that was largely absent when he was growing up in Elkhart, Indiana. Despite the work-earnestness and limited horizons of the place, basketball could still impart lessons on "the artfulness of living."

This focus on imagination and enlarged experience—what boy or girl hasn't taken a fadeaway shot alone as, in the mind, the last seconds ticked away and the crowd roared?—also receives attention in Jack Ridl's essay late in the book. These moments explain other shows of devotion. Adrian Matejka memorably recalls being a 19-year-old student at Indiana University, a midwestern basketball boomtown where "Bertrand Russell was no Bill Russell." In the following essay, Patricia Clark writes a more extended, YouTube-supported encomium of Russell, singling out his ethics, integrity, and humor.

Here is one more connection between the sport and the literary art. The world of basketball is a rich one linguistically. This anthology's very title makes use of one of the many resonant game-level terminologies—"fast break," to which we might easily add the spondaic potency of "slam dunk" and the onomatopoeically vaulting "alley-oop." Players, too, contribute to this particular sports word-hoard. Some, such as Kevin Garnett, are known for their trash-talking. It takes place on-court usually, but not always. Several years ago, a rant by then Philadelphia 76ers superstar Allen Iverson ensured that many American basketball fans would never again hear the word "practice" quite so simply, never entirely free of a pointed intonation born of exasperation. And on a more quotidian level, there's almost always something said by players or color commentators, malapropism or otherwise, that will invite the ear's double-take. Last week I was listening to a Chicago Bulls post-game interview with Carlos Boozer, and he said that he and his team didn't play as "crispy" in the first half.

Reading this book, and enjoying this year's iteration of March Madness, I have thought now and again about the fitting example of John Updike. It's safe to say he would have enjoyed Fast Break to Line Break immensely, and the court and, playground memories of several of the contributors brought to mind the atmospheric scene that opens Rabbit, Run:

Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it. Legs, shouts. The scrape and snap of Keds on loose alley pebbles seems to catapult their voices high into the moist March air blue above the wires. Rabbit Angstrom, coming up the alley in a business suit, stops and watches, though he's twenty-six and six three.

Updike himself knew such as setting from a young age. He recalled in a short 2005 piece in Life magazine how from the age of five to thirteen he spent his summers at a playground in Shillington, Pennsylvania. From his backyard, he passed through a hedge and "crossed a little unpaved alley topped in small gray stones" through a cornfield to the town's school property. There, amid the football field and cinder track and swings, was a basketball stanchion. All of the children had sun-browned legs and wiry bodies. As Scrimgeour puts it in the final essay in Fast Break to Line Break, "The joy of basketball is a youthful joy, a joy of the body." Poets, though, are prone to see more there, and Updike did, too. The epigraph for Rabbit, Run is from Pascal's Pensées: "The motions of Grace, the hardness of the heart; external circumstances." In the 1995 Everyman's Library edition that collected this and the subsequent three Rabbit novels as Rabbit Angstrom, the epigraph's resonance is heightened by its proximity to the opening sentences quoted above.

The game for many of these poets does what the character of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom did for Updike, as he recalled in the introduction to this 1995 edition: "He kept alive my native sense of wonder and hazard." Updike began Rabbit, Run in early 1959, in the first house he owned, in Ipswich, Massachusetts. The book took off. He sat at a little desk in a small corner room: "It was a seventeenth century house with a soft pine floor, and my kicking feet, during those exciting months of composition, wore two bare spots in the varnish."

To borrow the bridging language of the essay collection, we see here Updike as a young novelist on a different kind of hardwood court. Playing his game. Making his moves. Novelist, short-story writer, reporter, reviewer, poet, critic of various stripes, the basketball-haunted Updike had, as b-ballers would say, an inside and outside game both, and other kinds besides. He played at an extremely high level, deep into the fourth quarter.

Brett Foster is associate professor of English at Wheaton College. The Garbage Eater, his first collection of poems, was published last year by Northwestern University Press. A new collection, Fall Run Road, recently won Finishing Line Press's chapbook competition, and is forthcoming.

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