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First Loves

By Major Jackson

james_worthy.jpg
Debit: As an Accounting major at Temple University, enrolling in an Introduction to Poetry course was an indulgence beyond rationale for many of my friends and family.
Credit: Of course I had “electives” but it was general knowledge that one used those “free” courses, not to enrich and round out one’s education and become a human being of intellectual breadth, but to minor and specialize even further within the School of Business in some field as Marketing or Economics, or that other academic magnet Pre-Law.
Debit: No one had any notion as to how studying Poetry would prepare me to take the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam, a future event we seemed to obsess over as much as we did our final exam in creating Financial Statements for Mergers & Acquisitions, which I doubt any of us would ever have the occasion to do.


Credit: Part of my problem was that I thought too much about the multiple, connotative meanings of language (jargon?) used in business courses which led to unsatisfying answers to questions I’d posed triggered by various meanings, say in a word like Goodwill, which is the excess difference between a corporations’ purchase price less its market value.
Debit: Often a company’s reputation or familiarity with the public leads to Goodwill. Still, how does one measure it?
Credit: How do we explain the difference between the accounting meaning and one of the four OED definitions “2. The state of wishing well to a person, a cause, etc.; favourable or kindly regard; favour, benevolence. attrib.”? How does one measure this kind of Goodwill?
Debit: Enrolling in a poetry course allowed me to engage with language in a way that business-oriented courses could not.
Credit: I enjoyed the origins of words and considered myself a budding etymologist, which I believe every poet intuitively becomes once they decide to use language as material for imaginative thinking.
Debit: My Introduction to Poetry was taught by poet Tina Barr, currently a Professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, TN, but at the time, a graduate student completing her Ph’D at Temple University, and eventual long-lost friend. The anthology: Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama 5th Edition by X.J. Kennedy. I still own it.
Credit: I believe we were assigned over one weekend the task of finding a poem and presenting it to the class. After frustratingly flipping through the Poetry section, I found a poem by Garrett Hongo, “The Cadence of Silk” on page 826. It was my first basketball poem. I was a fan of the game, but could tell the speaker in the poem was an even greater fan. The poem describes two basketball teams who reigned in the 1980s, the Seattle SuperSonics and the LA Lakers. The poem enacts the motion of a basketball game, but even more, it becomes a larger metaphor for art and linguistic & rhetorical motion in a poem.
The Cadence of Silk
When I lived in Seattle, I loved watching
the Sonics play basketball; something
about that array of trained and energetic
bodies set in motion to attack a more
sluggish, less physically intelligent opponent
appealed to me, taught me about cadence
and play, the offguard breaking free
before the rebound, “releasing,” as is said
in the parlance of the game, getting to
the center’s downcourt pass and streaking
to the basket for a scoopshot layup
off the glass, all in rhythm, all in
perfect declensions of action, smooth
and strenuous as Gorgiasian rhetoric.
I was hooked on the undulant ballet
of the pattern offense, on the set play
back-door under the basket, and, at times,
even on the auctioneer’s pace and elocution
of play-by-play man. Now I watch
the Lakers, having returned to Los Angeles
some years ago, love them even more than
the Seattle team, long since broken up and aging.
The Lakers are incomparable, numerous
options for any situation, their players
the league’s quickest, most intelligent,
and, it is my opinion, frankly, the most cool.
Few bruisers, they are sleek as arctic seals,
especially the small forward
as he dodges through the key, away from
the ball, rubbing off his man on the screen,
setting for his shot. Then, slick as spit,
comes the ball from the point guard,
and my man goes up, cradling the ball
in his right hand like a waiter balancing
a tray piled with champagne in stemmed glasses,
cocking his arm and bringing the ball
back behind his ear, pumping, letting fly then
as he jumps, popcorn-like, in the corner,
while the ball, launched, slung dexterously
with a slight backspin, slashes through
the basket’s silk net with a small,
sonorous splash of completion.
****************
I happily discussed in class Magic Johnson, Michael Cooper, Byron Scott, James Worthy and the rest of the 80s Lakers. I saw those players in this poem and took with pride my ability to “relate,” as my students say, to the poem which was all the evidence I needed to believe it was an excellent poem; I took that connection to class that Monday and discussed the poem’s sonic texture, its accurate imagery and figurative language, which stuns me to this day.
Debit: When people ask me why I decided to abandon a career in accounting, I often mention this poem. That kind of power, rhetorical, aesthetic, and physical, was not to be taken lightly. I wanted to discover how language could be that athletic, could motion itself towards that kind of mimetic action, and to attempt my own artful versifying and subtle, persuasive feats.
Credit: I used to own that anthology First Loves, poets discussing encounters with poems that first bewildered them. “Cadence of Silk” was not my first love, but it looms large, in that, it changed the direction of my life.
Debit: I realized that I was that “slight backspin” and “sonorous splash of completion.”
Credit: The aesthetic experience of reconciling my bank account every month could never compare to the poems’ that have given me similar pleasures as “Cadence of Silk.” All the same, such encounters with the world that are as harmonious and complete work on me, and I never tire of the experience.

Comments (7)

  • On November 30, 2007 at 4:02 pm lillian wrote:

    i was so positive i was going to be a business major. i was a state champion and national contender in the business and marketing club. and then along came bukowski and adrienne rich.

  • On November 30, 2007 at 10:21 pm Francisco Aragón wrote:

    Thank you for bringing up this poem. Basketball was my passion during grade and high school (1974-1984). I loved those epic seven-game battles between the Celtics and the Lakers. And I remember when Doctor J and the sixers finally got past the Celtics to win it all. Edward Hirsch has a wonderful basketball poem I’ve taught, whose title is escaping me, in couplets, whose final image is the ball swishing through the net. Yusef has a pretty good one too.
    But probably my favorite poem that takes basketball as its subject doesn’t involve pros, but rather: a portrait of the speaker simply shooting around. It’s called, simply, “Shooting”. And yet, the poem didn’t make it into _Live from the Hong Kong Nile Club_: August Kleinzahler’s Selected Poems published by F,S&G in 2000.
    The poem appeared in _Storm Over Hackensack_, published by Moyer Bell in 1985. One of the devices the poem employs is the repetition of the word “hit” (which is italicized) to great effect. Some excerpts:
    The sun is high
    and the blacktop soft so Hit
    first from the corner
    then from the key
    because your hand is hot
    and no one’s watching
    *
    Hit
    after dark and the stars shall
    illumine
    Put moves on the locals
    They’ll make you a god
    Hit for the sake of it
    for the music of hitting
    *
    And it ends:
    Hit for the rhythm
    that finds you and lifts you
    The ball is a planet
    and you make it go

  • On December 1, 2007 at 9:57 am Jenny Browne wrote:

    Being a native Hoosier, all this b-ball talk rings close to my hooping heart. Thanks for sharing the Kleinzahler poem. I know and love much of his work but this is new to me. And wonderful.
    p.s. I live in San Antonio now, home of the champs. Go Spurs Go!

  • On December 1, 2007 at 2:11 pm Sheryl Luna wrote:

    I understand the credit/debit approach with which you approach this post! Some days I wish I would have studied accounting or medicine or law honestly rather than writing. But you are right about the enjoyment poetry brings, and it is a hard sell in our capitalistic society. I keep trying to remind myself about this un-marketable joy, and in the end it is the one thing nobody can ever take away from us as artists.
    One poet who wrote about basketball and actually influenced me is Sherman Alexie. I was influenced by an image of dark lanky Indian ball players jumping through the air gloriously like salmon. It’s an image that stays with me. I was never good at basketball and only watched it fleetingly on television, but there is almost a poetic movement when an athlete takes to the air like Magic.

  • On December 3, 2007 at 12:06 pm Major wrote:

    Lillian! It’s not too late! (smiles)

  • On December 3, 2007 at 12:09 pm Major wrote:

    Francisco,
    Thanks for turning me on to Kleinzahler’s bball poem. It has to be one of the best poems I’ve read by him. I’m off to read it in full.

  • On December 3, 2007 at 12:16 pm Major wrote:

    Sheryl,
    I hear Sherman is a really good baller, too. I hope someday, we can hoop it up a bit. To write as compellingly as he does, I wonder if one has to be that close to the game. In any event, I agree about that unmarketable joy; no one can take it away, but I’d wish more people took as much delight as we do.


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, November 30th, 2007 by Major Jackson.