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Poem Of The Week: ‘Watching Tennis’ By John Heath-Stubbs (1918-2006)
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
John Heath-Stubbs
A bit of light in winter darkness. Poet and renowned classicist John Heath-Stubbs’ ‘Watching Tennis’ is lyrically transformative in the depths of January.

The last knockings of summer’s sun, an evening to savour; the poet’s capturing of an unlikely consummation is burnished in memory like the tanned skin of Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

Watching Tennis

Light, in light breezes and a favouring sun,
You moved, like a dancer, to the glancing ball,
And the dance and the game seemed one
To me, unmarked spectator by the wall –

Always spectator - inapt at any sport –
And you free burgess of the summer air:
Embraced within the Iron Maiden, Thought,
I of my body’s poverty am aware.

How could I guess that all-consoling night,
Confider and concealer of secrets, should conduct
You home to port within my clumsy arms?

Yet, by the chances of the game betrayed,
Your mouth on mine made known its silent need,
And all my sense found peace among your limbs.


And there is no doubt that ‘Watching Tennis’ shares some commerce with Betjeman’s evergreen ‘The Subaltern’s Love Song’. Betjeman’s hymn to the unattainable Miss Hunter Dunn embodies a longing, also, to restore the luminous aura of past Arcadian summers in the present. It is effortlessly, rhythmically seductive, if overblown.

By contrast, Heath-Stubbs’ reticence is a measure of self-doubt, and more truth obtains in the concluding epiphany because the joy of revelation is predicated entirely on its unexpectedness.

Also by Steve Whitaker...
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There is a structural irony to the poet’s exposition. His formal precision – the poem employs a more or less regular pentameter interlaced with full and assonantal rhyme, and persuasive metaphor – is counterpointed sharply with his sporting ineptitude and reflective restraint. The ‘Iron Maiden, Thought’, whose self-imposed boundary is a mirror to the narrator’s limitations, craves release.

And finds it in an efflorescence of his own great skill – the ability to distil such a transfiguring moment in words. Heath-Stubbs’ unbridled use of alliteration is a reflection of his freeform joy.

The final tercet, wherein all clumsiness and ineptitude fall away, underwrites a meeting of minds and bodies whose natural poetry lies in a silence beyond words, all barriers of artifice now dissolved.

Poem Of The Week: ‘Watching Tennis’ By John Heath-Stubbs (1918-2006), 11th January 2019, 17:15 PM