Composing Free Verse Is Like Playing Tennis Without a Net

Robert Frost? G. K. Chesterton? Eleanor Graham Vance? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The prominent poet Robert Frost did not compose free verse. Instead, he welcomed the structural demands of rhyme and meter. To explicate his choice he used a clever and vivid simile from the domain of tennis. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in February 1933 within a report published by “The Scranton Times” of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Frost spoke to a capacity audience at the local Century Club, and he employed two similes when discussing free verse. Poems written in free verse are not required to follow a regular meter or a rhyming scheme. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Mr. Frost read a number of his own poems and quite captivated the audience by his charming personality and sincerity . . .

He likened free verse, which he said he never writes, to playing tennis without a net or handball without a wall. He likes blank verse and frequently uses it in his writings.

A net and a wall provide crucial constraints on the athletic activities of tennis and handball. Similarly, rhyme and meter provide constraints on poems. Yet, Frost’s viewpoint was not rigid regarding rhyme. For example, his popular poem “Birches” was written in blank verse, specifically unrhymed iambic pentameter.

The newspaper excerpt above indicated Frost’s opinion, but it did not present a direct quotation. Further below some citations with direct quotations.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Frost’s February 1933 talk was also covered in a different local newspaper “The Scranton Republican”: 2

In speaking of free verse, the poet said that he himself doesn’t like to write it, but sometimes enjoys other people’s free verse. He said that writing free verse is like playing hand ball with no wall, or like playing tennis without a net. Mr. Frost prefers experimenting with given forms, and favors iambics.

Many books and manuscripts associated with Robert Frost are held at the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. A catalogue of the collection describes a 1934 letter from Robert Frost to his daughter Lesley Frost that contains this line: 3

For my part I should be as satisfied to play tennis with the net down as to write verse with no verse form set to stay me.

Several reference works such as the “Encarta Book of Quotations” 4
and “The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations” 5 contain entries stating that Frost employed the remark during a speech at a school in Massachusetts in 1935:

Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.
ROBERT FROST (1874-1963), U.S. poet. Address, 17 May 1935, Milton Academy, Mass.

QI has not yet acquired contemporary documentation supporting the above citation. Interestingly, this version uses the phrase “with the net down” instead of “without a net”. Evidence shows that Frost used both phrases.

In January 1939 “The New York Times” printed a piece by Ralph Thompson reviewing a book about modern poetry. Thompson referred to the saying and expressed uncertainty about its ascription: 6

. . . who was it, by the way, who said that the writing of free verse was like playing tennis with the net down?

In April 1939 a newspaper in Fort Collins, Colorado reported that Robert Frost “delighted a capacity audience” at the local high school auditorium: 7

No doubt was left in the minds of the audience as to what he thought about free verse, which is “like playing tennis with the net down.”

In 1941 a newspaper in Brattleboro, Vermont presented a direct quotation from Frost, but the phrasing was somewhat awkward: 8

“I would just as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down,” said Robert Frost, prominent American poet, speaking here last evening before an audience of over a hundred writers, poets and critics attending the 16th Annual Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference under the auspices of Middlebury college.

A poem is easier to recall accurately when it conforms to a metrical pattern and/or a rhyme scheme. A 1945 article in the journal “College English” discussed Frost and printed a remark from him touching on this point about memorability: 9

He remarks satirically, “We used to say that the beauty of poetry was that it helped you to remember it. Free verse is better; you can remake it.” And even more sharply he says, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”

Free verse has inspired quips from other detractors. In 1949 “The Ottawa Journal” of Canada printed a review of a compilation of humorous quotations. The reviewer highlighted a comment attributed to English writer G. K. Chesterton: 10

Another from G. K., maybe the neatest in the book: Free verse is like free love; it is a contradiction in terms.

In 1959 Frost participated in a discussion with two other writers. He said that he found constraints helpful while crafting poetry. Whenever his mood objected to constraints he could simply communicate with prose: 11

You know, I’ve given offense by saying that I’d as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down. I want something there—the other thing—something to hold and something for me to put a strain on; and I’d be lost in the air with just cutting loose—unless I’m in my other mood of making it prose right out, you know, and I don’t write much of that.

In 1967 freelance writer and lecturer Eleanor Graham Vance published a piece in “The North American Review”. She heard Frost speak many years earlier during conference at Bread Loaf in Vermont: 12

Frost had been talking and reading for an hour to a spellbound audience in a big barn of a building with a hard rain pelting on the roof. During the question period afterward, someone asked: “Mr. Frost, do you ever write free verse?” and Frost gave his famous answer: “I would no more think of writing free verse than of playing tennis without a net.”

Vance spoke to the U.S. poet Carl Sandburg and presented his rejoinder:

” … I would have him know that I have not only played tennis without a net but have used the stars for tennis balls.”

Vance also presented Sandburg’s comment regarding rhyme:

“If you write in rhyme you can’t say what you want to. When you come to the end of the line, instead of saying what you started out to say, you have to say what will rhyme.”

In conclusion, Robert Frost did use a simile on multiple occasions that equated writing free verse to playing tennis with the net down (or without a net). Frost employed variable phrasing.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration of tennis being played by two couples from the 1883 book “The Universal Self-Instructor”.

(Great thanks to Ben Zimmer whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to other twitter thread participants. Further, thanks to twitter users A.M. Juster and Michael Greenspan. Greenspan posted an image on twitter indicating that Robert Frost wrote a letter to Carrol Frost containing an instance of the saying. Inspired by this information QI located a different letter from Robert Frost to Lesley Frost containing the saying. In addition, thanks to George Dinwiddie who noticed a typo and notified QI.)

Notes:

  1. 1933 February 10, The Scranton Times, Frost Reads Poems at Century Club Meeting, Quote Page 22, Column 6, Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1933 February 10, The Scranton Republican, Large Audience Hears America’s Foremost Poet, Quote Page 6, Column 6, Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1974, Robert Frost: Descriptive Catalogue of Books and Manuscripts in the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of the University of Virginia, Compiled by Joan St. C. Crane, Letter F9.42, Letter year: 1934, Letter from Robert Frost to daughter Lesley Frost, Quote Page 208, Published for the Associates of the University of Virginia Library by the University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia. (Verified with scans)
  4. 2000, Encarta Book of Quotations, Edited by Bill Swainson, Entry: Robert Frost, Quote Page 357, St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1993, The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations, Edited by Robert Andrews, Topic: Poetry, Quote Page 692, Columbia University Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1939 January 26, New York Times, Books of The Times by Ralph Thompson, Quote Page 26, Column 5, New York. (ProQuest)
  7. 1939 April 26, Fort Collins Express-Courier, Large Audience Delighted by Poet by Edith Bjornstad, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Fort Collins, Colorado. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1941 August 22, The Brattleboro Daily Reformer, Attacks Free Verse: Robert Frost Addresses Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Quote Page 7, Column 6, Brattleboro, Vermont. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1945 November, College English, Volume 7, Number 2, Robert Frost: A Time to Listen by Reginald L. Cook, Start Page 66, Quote Page 69, Column 1, Published by National Council of Teachers of English. (JSTOR) link
  10. 1949 August 13, The Ottawa Journal, ‘Maybe I Will Not Hang Myself Today’ by I.N.S (The Journal Staff), (Book Review of Even Esar’s “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations”), Quote Page 6, Column 5, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1966, Interviews with Robert Frost by Robert Frost, Edited by Edward Connery Lathem, Part 5: The Fifties, Interview Title: The Craft of Poetry, Year: 1959, (Discussion with Robert Frost, Cleanth Brooks, and Robert Penn Warren), Start Page 199, Quote Page 203, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York. (Verified with scans)
  12. 1967 March, The North American Review, Volume 252, Number 2, Glimpses of Carl Sandburg by Eleanor Graham Vance, Start Page 9, Quote Page 9 and 10, Published by University of Northern Iowa. (JSTOR) link