Martin Danahay


Irving and Squash

Irving Feldman shattered my preconceptions about poets! Singlehandedly! In one afternoon! Sitting with him in the living room of Don and Ruth's house he was fitting in very nicely with my preconceptions about how a poet should behave; reading from his poems to us, provoking meditations about the profound issues of life, plumbing the depths of various emotional states etc. etc. At some point I happened to mention that I had taken up playing squash again and Irving allowed that he too used to be a squash player. He even read a poem about squash that captured, quite nicely I thought, some of the failed aspirations (on my part at least - I haven't seen him play, so I can't comment on his game) of somebody striving to hit the squash ball in defiance of gravity and physical limitations - but things went rapidly downhill from there.

Irving then proceeded to tell me quite calmly that he would always drop everything, including writing a poem, for a game of squash if somebody called on the phone to invite him. The poem, he claimed, would always be there when he got back from the game. I was, as they say where I come from, gobsmacked. I've always thought that squash was a distraction from the weightier things in life, such as death, taxes and writing scholarly articles (all of which I find equally enjoyable). Squash was supposed to be ephemeral, mere fun and games, and not to be ranked up there with writing poetry. This was revolutionary.

And for another thing, what's with a squash-playing poet? I thought poets were supposed to be locked away, Proust-like in cork-lined rooms sacrificing their bodies and sports-playing time to their Art. However, here was a real-life poet telling me quite sanguinely that he would rush out of his cork-lined room to play a game of squash (which implied, of course, that he had a telephone in there to boot). I have come to terms with the fact that a poet could work for an insurance company, but it had never occurred to me that a poet could be a squash player. Also it undermines my preconceptions about squash players, who I had always regarded as manly, tight-lipped sorts (being a supreme example of the breed myself). Now whenever I walk out onto the court I'm going to be worried that my opponent could blindside me with a sestina, or perhaps drop a nonchalant couplet in my ear at a crucial moment. Is nowhere safe from poetry?

Still there is a positive side; from now on when I set out for a squash game feeling guilty about tasks left unfinished on my desk I can ask myself "what would Irving say?" and of course I can answer myself "go and play squash!" So, although my stereotypes about poets have been shattered I can now play squash without feelings of guilt. This may not improve my admittedly abysmal squash game, but it will make the experience losing much, much more enjoyable (the poem he read that afternoon will of course help too).