Mary Ann Mayer
is a poet and occupational therapist. Her first book of poems, Telephone Man, was published in 2005. Her work has appeared in two anthologies and several journals, and is forthcoming in Raven Chronicles and the Bryant Literary Review.
With her husband and German Shorthair pointer, she divides her time between southeastern Massachusetts and the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
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Poem As Play? Poet As Player?
Musings On Homo Ludens
by Mary Ann Mayer
Take your lack of seriousness more seriously. With this single piece of advice, I began to view poetry as vocation, deepening my commitment to move beyond hobbyist and tinkerer, beyond treating poetry as fun and games, ritual and riddle. Before this suggestion, I’d been satisfied to write to please my own ear, for my own entertainment— like doing a crossword puzzle in a new foreign language. After a decade and writing hundreds of poems, I realized my work rarely connected with others, and rarely felt complete. Readers were enamored with some of its elements, but more often, didn’t “get” my poems, finding them difficult and strange.
Yet I covet playfulness, and strangeness too…so would this, could this natural “bent” coexist with a “serious” study of poetry? I’ve had the chance to test this question while taking private “lessons” in poetry—structured akin to classical training in music. Feeling the need to get proficient with my “instrument,” to really learn how to play it, I embarked on an open-ended course of study with an accomplished writer and teacher. I assumed that if classical training works for musical education, why not for poetry? Like many beginning poets, I’d spent most of my time in workshops and groups, in exploratory and supportive, but amateurish activities. I recognized the point when I needed to go after bigger game with more rigor, and knew the teacher I needed. And so, my grand tour began.
I was guided through various poetic canons and traditions, built a small reference library, and for two years read exclusively poetry and poetry criticism (although I don’t recommend this). As a musician practices the scales, I practiced formal modes of “reading,” did drills and warm-ups, studied, discussed, and wrote commentary on model poems. I practiced new techniques, revised my own work, and began to locate my themes and motifs in the context of tradition(s). I made a lot of progress until one difficult interlude. Exhausted and floundering on the learning curve, I began to feel hopelessly mis-matched to the demands of the art. Then, my tutor slyly introduced the concept of playfulness (turns out, this aesthete is also an improvisational jazz musician!). Could he be seriously suggesting play as a guiding aesthetic, even a work ethic? At this juncture, I became acquainted with Homo Ludens—or “Man the Player”— a mid-20th century idea. And, as I came to discover, in the history of poetry, a deeply indwelling one.
Latin has really only one word to cover the whole field of play: ludus, from ludere. It covers children’s games, contests, liturgical and theatrical representations, performances, sport, and games of chance. In the expression, lares ludentes, it means “dancing.” The etymology lies in the sphere of non-seriousness, and particularly of “semblance” or “deception.” Indeed, “illusion” means “in-play” (from inlusio, illudere or inludere).
Play has a primordial quality. Animals play. Play is older than human culture. It has a profoundly aesthetic quality. Play creates order, is order, claims the Dutch historian and cultural theorist, Johan Huizinga, in his book Homo Ludens: A Study of The Play Element In Culture (first English translation, 1950, Roy Publishers). Huizinga writes: Play has a tendency to be beautiful. It may be that this aesthetic factor is identical with the impulse to create orderly form, which animates play in all its aspects. And poetic form? Why, this is nothing if not to create beauty. So is play, then, an aesthetic—true to form and the pursuit of beauty?
Huizinga goes on to suggest that the words we use to denote play belong for the most part to aesthetics, terms with which we try to describe the effects of beauty: tension, poise, balance, contrast, variation, solution, resolution, etc. Play casts a spell over us; it is “enchanting”, “captivating.” It is invested with the noblest qualities we are capable of perceiving in things: rhythm and harmony. Poiesis, in fact, is a play function. The function of the poet still remains fixed in the play-sphere where it was born. It proceeds within the play-ground of the mind, in a world of its own which the mind creates for it…It lies beyond seriousness, on that more primitive and original level where the child, the animal, the savage and the seer belong, in the region of dream, enchantment, ecstasy, laughter.
In poetry’s history, examples of the play-sphere abound. What comes to mind are: the classical world of myth and fable; the pastoral play-ground celebrating new seasons, freedom, and love; the hallowed spaces where sacred and wild poetry is made (Japanese haiku); ancient Chinese wilderness poets, and centuries later, the wilderness ethic of Gary Snyder and other “poets on the peaks”; in Shakespeare and the shape-shifting language of the sonnets; the court-poets and troubadours; in Baudelaire and early modernist, urban flâneurs; in Eastern Europeans Szymborska, Herbert, Simic; in prose poetry; in songful poets X. J. Kennedy and Richard Moore; personae poets and shamans; The Emperor of Ice Cream; the transcendent; the absurd; and objectivists “like” Marianne Moore. And too, what of the many poets (often women) whose work is not taken “seriously”?
These examples I offer are obvious. As is taking for granted the assumption that play is a significant function. Well, the obvious can serve as starting-point for deeper questions, such as: How is play expressed in poetry? What purpose does it serve in consideration of form? What is a playful poem? Can the aesthetic be used in ludi—in the sense of schools—to teach students to play the instrument better? (Since playing is not doing, in the ordinary sense…you don’t “do” a game as you “do” a task or a craft, you play it!) Can play serve as one particularly clear window into the wild and the natural ? Is play a work ethic? These are a few of the questions that occur to one emerging, intermediate “player.” The pros could really have a ball!
The story of my path is not interesting or unique. Rather, what is, and I hope, fruitful for others, is that serendipitous encounter with Homo Ludens. Although I still play alone, I feel in good company. Now, I feel more motivated to write, trusting I’ve found a home for my voice. I feel the spirit of Homo Ludens is most welcoming for those like me, who cast a wide ontological net into the world, fiddle through the catch and find most of it suitable for poetry. The seriously, playfully, even pointlessly curious. No antithesis here. For as the Dutchman says: The play-concept as such is of a higher order than is seriousness, for seriousness seeks to exclude play, whereas play can very well include seriousness). A beautiful idea.