The Courts at Lawton Street

March 26, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROBERT PINSKY: The poet Alan Shapiro played on his high school and college basketball teams, and now he teaches poetry at basketball powerhouse North Carolina. In fact, legendary coach Dean Smith once invited Shapiro to serve as official timekeeper – a role Shapiro found too pressured.

Alan Shapiro’s poem, “The Courts at Lawton Street,” opens with a dreamy evocation:

Soon when the sun drops over the rim 
of buildings, across this small tar court 
the out of work, the working, students 
and dropouts will be running till dark. 
But now they are only gathering
in a loose arc before the basket, 
in a fog of heat where they forget 
what they forget, lazily shooting.

A slow impersonal music winds
through their voices, a great friendliness 
so casual nobody needs
to notice; they talk of this and that, 
old games, miraculous old moves . . . 

The basketball court is a world of its own that is like the world – for us watching the game on television or for the players on an asphalt court like Shaprio’s. His poem closes, as it opened, with it gaze toward the deceptions, risks, hopes and failures of the real world:

Now there are three balls, three drab moons 
turning through the gold soot of evening, 
colliding on the bent rim, making
the metal chain net whisper applause. 
At the other end someone dribbles 
behind his back, between his legs, while 
two small kids chase him till they stumble,
lunging at that ghost between his hands.

And when singing, “Got to sweeten up 
my jams” he lopes slowly to the hoop 
and stuffs the ball in over his head, 
the kids, knowing they watch a god 
they could become, with solemnity
slap each other’s palms and say, “Nasty, 
nasty,” as though the word meant only 
fame to them, and all there is of hope.