The contemplative world of poetry and the frenetic world of basketball seem like an unlikely pairing, but they came together with surprising ease recently at a special sesquicentennial reading at Saint Mary’s College by two renowned alumni—former Poet Laureate Robert Hass ’63 and basketball star turned teacher and writer Tom Meschery ’61.
In his introduction to the reading, Chris Sindt, vice pro- vost for graduate and professional studies, said the poetry of Hass “reminds us both of the vital purpose writing and litera- ture play in our culture and also that the work of poetry can be fun, natural, even routine. He has famously said that ‘poetry is a way of living...a human activity like baking bread or play- ing basketball.’”
Poetry and basketball came together quite literally in Meschery’s life. A Russian immigrant, he was a hoops star and scholar at Saint Mary’s and went on to play in the NBA with the Warriors and the Seattle Supersonics. After leaving the world of professional basketball, he devoted himself to teaching and writing. He recently published his third book of poetry, “Some Men.”
Sindt aptly described Meschery’s poetry as “deeply engag- ing and empathetic.” Among the works Meschery read were “Hakeem Olajuwon, AKA Hakeem The Dream,” a poem he wrote while in West Africa, and “Continuation School,” a funny and touching piece about his experience as a teacher.
Hass is one of the preeminent poets in the nation. Aside from serving as poet laureate of the United States, he won the 2007 National Book Award and the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his poetry collection, “Time and Materials: Poems 1997– 2005.” He recently published “What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World.” He is also the co-founder, with Pamela Michael, of River of Words, a program of SMC’s Center for Environmental Literacy.
The New York Times has described Hass as a writer who “is so intelligent that to read his poetry or prose, or to hear him speak, gives one an almost visceral pleasure.” No doubt many in the audience would disagree with the adjective “almost.”
He began with an evocative and hilarious reading about his heady days as an undergraduate at Saint Mary’s, and segued into a story about a memorable college soiree where Meschery was seen hanging out of an upper-floor window in Dante Hall reciting verses from 19th-century symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau Ivre” (“The Drunken Boat”).
Hass then delivered a captivating reading of three new poems-in-progress: “Nature Notes,” “Sprezzatura” and a tour de force touching on poetry, symbolism, philosophy, armpits and art entitled “An Argument About Poetics.” Like much of his work, the poems ranged from starkly beautiful works “grounded in the beauty and energy of the physical world,” as one reviewer put it, to complex poems that illuminate history, politics, ideology and all things human.
Throughout the evening, the respect the two men felt for each other was evident, and it was summed up in a poem Meschery read that had, in fact, been inspired by one of Hass’s poems. It’s called, appropriately, “A Reading with Robert Hass” and begins with a quote from Hass’s poem, “Dragonflies Mating.”
A Reading with Robert Hass
“...and I’d bounce
the ball two or three times,
study the orange rim as if it were,
which it was, the true level of the world,
the one sure thing.”
– Robert Hass, from Sun Under Wood
The writer of these lines should have been me, but wasn’t.
For years I envied the writer understanding something
I knew from experience, but could not put into words,
my love of basketball, how it has, from the beginning
into old age, kept me safe. Because I was certain that if
my body did the right thing, the rest of me, mind, soul,
whatever, would follow. I wondered back then, and still do,
how a poet came to this understanding without the years
it took me shooting the ball a thousand times a day, how
a poet got it right from a childhood memory of standing on the line?
By Tom Meschery
Story by Teresa Castle
Office of College Communications
Photos by Max Crowell '13