Poetry and tennis


On the Sunday morning of the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival I breakfasted with poets discussing the theme of writing poetry and whether it can be taught.

Straight away, Thomas Lux said: Yes!

It is no different from the viloin or painting.

Metaphor, simile, that’s trickier, he said. But we can relax: Plato and Aristotle knew this thousands of years ago. It can be taught of course, but there is always a mystery. There has to be. We might call it talent, or some such, but really that is irrelevant.

Towards the end of our discussion I heard an extraordinary thing. An epiphany.

One of the discussants, Lisa Gershon, told us she is a tennis coach.

Her method is to ask her players to stop playing in their heads and pay attention instead to the way they move on the court. To listen to the thwok of the ball off the racket. To not worry about the result.

It may end up costing her her job.

She was comparing the way we teach children to dissect poems as opposed to letting them feel them in their bodies, encouraging them to respond with delight and enthusiasm instead of finding the metaphor in line 4.

Rafa Nadal is right handed, but plays tennis with his left.

‘In this country,’ she said, ‘that would never have happened. But in Spain he was allowed to be comfortable. His comfort came before his need to be excellent. That’s the way we should teach poetry.’


  1. It’s about rhythm, isn’t it? Hearing in the blood. I banged on about this for years, teacher trainer/adviser. And if we can teach music we can certainly teach folk to hear and perform and make poetry. Just as we can teach children to draw so long as we understand that essentially we must teach them to look, to see. And of course they will need, along the way, to manage techniques and materials. It’s not rocket science, is it? Just a lifelong learning. Don’t suppose Nicky Morgan would understand. By the way, where do you find the time to write all these cobwebby posts. Me, I’m retired. I’ve got an excuse. But all power to your (tennis) elbow.


  2. Instinct, mystery, feeling it, vital to making and reading poems. Then there is craft and technique. How to bring these things into being alongside one another ? As with the act of creativity itself creating the conditions, the readiness for flow and connection is a huge part of it. Craft is as craft must be, practice practice until it is instinct in the body not the head.


  3. Love this Anthony. I agree we need to encourage many more people (not just children) to allow themselves to respond to poetry with feeling, delight and enthusiasm – an emotional and viseral response – rather than feeling the need to understand the technicalities first. After all, we’re allowed to enjoy music without necessarily understanding all the technicalities. Why not the same with poetry? Then many more may be encouraged to pick up the pen (as others might a guitar) and delve deeper into construction techniques. I think what the tennis metaphor is saying is that we need to forge the personal connection first.
    Great insight, thanks for sharing. x Rionach


  4. This is a great exploration of a subject dear to my heart as one who teaches poetry to both children and adults. Years ago I worked as director for a children’s summer program, a camp in the Oregon woods. This was an experiment in alternative education and the watchwords that summer were: “It’s a free camp!” In other words, anything goes (with a few basic rules for safety like “no pine-cone throwing!”). Over the years I’ve continued to find the “free camp” concept useful especially with adult students who are so rule-bound one wonders if they’ll ever shake loose and develop an ear for the music of the words. Perhaps not surprisingly musicians caught up in theory and rules can be tone-deaf when it comes to poetry. I recently wrestled with one over the opening lines of Prufrock. I was hearing the lovely lyrical rhythm and he was stuck on the dark image of an etherized patient. It’s hard to dance when you can’t hear the music.


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