Poetry and Play (Part I)

Dora Malech
July 20, 2015
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When I was in Amsterdam earlier this summer, the Dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga came up in multiple conversations about poetry; more specifically, his 1938 book Homo Ludens: Proeve Eener Bepaling Van Het Spel-Element Der Cultuur kept coming up. The title translates as “Man the Player,” “Playing Man,” or “Man at Play”: “The Play-Element Of Culture,” italics mine and emphasis Huizinga’s. (As opposed to “The Play-Element In Culture,” a preposition that, while perhaps sounding more natural in English, doesn’t exactly capture the generative thrust of the original). In the book’s foreword, Huizinga writes of delivering an earlier manifestation of his ideas in a lecture entitled “The Play Element of Culture” in London and how he “clung to the genitive” because it was not his “object to define the place of play among all the other manifestations of culture, but rather to ascertain how far culture itself bears the character of play.”

In Homo Ludens, Huizinga writes that “word and idea are not born of scientific or logical thinking but of creative language, which means of innumerable languages—for this act of ‘conception’ has taken place over and over again”; he writes that “we have to conclude, therefore, that civilization is, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from play like a baby detaching itself from the womb: it arises in and as play, and never leaves it.” While Huizinga makes a broad cultural argument, the specific work (play) of art and poetry never feel far away.

For me, poetry and play have always felt inextricably linked, both personally in terms of poetic process and pleasure, and more publicly in terms of pedagogy. When I was working toward my MFA degree, a professor, in meeting with me about my poems, accused me of “just trying to crack myself up.” He was right. I was trying to crack myself up, sometimes. And break my own heart. And find some solace. And figure a few things out through language. In other words, I was playing.

Other works and individuals and movements have been pulling me toward Huizinga for some time, particularly the Oulipo writers, for whom Huizinga’s book was both confirmation of and influence on their practices. While most general poetry writing workshops don’t use specifically Oulipian techniques (though I’m sure some do), many workshop prompts and exercises introduce constraint-based or chance-based parameters that harness the generative force of play. While a lot of attention has been paid (positively and negatively) to the current “workshop model” of small-group constructive criticism and its rise in academia and beyond, perhaps not enough attention has been paid to the accompanying workshop model of prompt, exercise, and constraint. This model seems to be seen as ancillary to the academic study of creative writing, a “warm-up” for the real work of “workshopping.” I know some graduate professors never provide “prompts” to their students, as if that kind of play perhaps cheapens the resulting poetry. I would argue that those graduate students and others, whether through habits acquired in undergraduate classes or through their own explorations, investigations of prosody or “conversations” with other poems and poets on the page, are still doing the work of playing.

Huizinga writes of his “conviction” that “civilization arises and unfolds in and as play.” Autocorrect wants to turn “Huizinga” to “hazing” and “Bepaling” to “befalling.”

Huizinga criticized Fascism in his writings of the 1930s and criticized the Nazi occupation in 1942, leading to his detention by the Nazis. He died in detention on February 1, 1945, less than three months before liberation on May 5. At the end of the foreword to Homo Ludens, written in Leiden in June 1938, a heartbreakingly terse and understated urgency follows his mea culpa for his “incursions” into schools of thought beyond his own expertise: “To fill in all the gaps of my knowledge beforehand was out of the question for me. I had to write now, or not at all. And I wanted to write.”

“Write it!” (Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art”)

“Play it!” (Rick in Casablanca)


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