Last night Cappie Pondexter's clutch one-on-one play tied the WNBA finals at two games apiece for Detroit and Phoenix. Whoever wins game five this Sunday (4:30pm Eastern on ESPN2) takes the title. It's been a great playoffs so far. Nearly everybody who's been watching and who isn't a Michigan resident wants the Phoenix Mercury to win: they're speedy and offense-oriented, like their home-state NBA counterparts (and completely new to the league finals), while the Detroit Shock are tough athletes and bruisers (and have won two championships already with, more or less, the lineup they have now).
What does this have to do with poetry?

Not much, perhaps, but more than nothing, even if you don't count the books of verse (yes, I wrote one, but there are certainly others) in which basketball plays a recurrent role. Watching the WNBA and looking ahead not just to the other kinds of writing I do, but to the odd work called lit-blogging, made me wonder whether these teams' styles could be mapped on to opposing trends-- better to say opposing impulses-- in art. Whose work moves rapidly, pursues long passes and unlikely links from concept to concept, emotion to emotion, risking the occasional embarrassing collapse? Whose work seems pugnacious, defensive, dependent often on superior (intellectual) powers, at times intimidating by design?
Is there any overlap at all between the qualities that make for a very good athlete, and the qualities that enable the writing of memorable poems? (I can think of one: the willingness to practice.) Is there, in the most important sense, no competition on the slopes of Parnassus? Or are poets (all writers? or just writers of verse?) really driven by a need to outdo, to seem and become, stronger than their predecessors? Is the experience of flow in sport much like the experience of making art?
Having no athletic gifts at all, myself, I have no firsthand idea. But I can think of some people I'd like to ask.

Originally Published: September 14th, 2007

Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...