Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Poetry Tuesday: The Poetry of Chess

This morning, I took The Poetry of Chess from my bookshelves, not having looked at in a long, long time. I bought this book secondhand (in Greene's bookshop, a famous Dublin shop which is now closed) about ten years ago.

I bought this book for three reasons. One was that I'm interested in poetry, obviously. Another was that I was interested in chess (more on that in a bit). The third was that I delight in any book with a very specific subject-- the mere existence of such a book brings me joy. Very often, when I'm going about my work in the library, I come across books of this kind and my heart exults. Such books, to me, are celebrations of "the drunkenness of things being various".

(Please note, however, that I take no such pleasure in a book of this kind if it is written as a joke, or as an exercise in obscurity. Indeed, that takes all the joy out of it.)

What about my interest in chess? I was very interested in chess from about my sixteenth year to the end of my teens, and I retained a dwindling interest in it for a few years after that. My interest was sparked by the World Championship match between Nigel Short and Garry Kasparov in 1993. I began to play chess against various family and friends. At the height of the chess boom in my family there would be several games a day. Aside from my cousin, who routinely trounced me, I was fairly evenly matched with everybody in this little circle.

In my early twenties I joined Ballymun chess club. My interest in chess was considerably diminished by this time, but I was trying to be more extroverted. There were only three regular members in the club at this point, along with one occasional member. Here, I realized what a poor player I really was. As the elderly chairman of the club put it: "As a strategic player, you're poor. As a tactical player, you're...not bad". I didn't stay very long, and that was probably the end of my chess playing, apart from a few games here and there. I haven't played in years, and I may never play again.

However, my interest in chess was always as much aesthetic as it was competitive. I loved the board and the pieces (they are called Staunton pieces, incidentally). I loved the history of the game, especially its connection with the London restaurant Simpson's on the Strand, and the fact that the origins of the game lie "in the mists of history" (a phrase I use at every opportunity).

A book that utterly captivated me at this time was The Inner Game by Dominic Lawson (son of Nigel Lawson, the politician, and brother of Nigella, the celebrity chef). This was a first-hand account of the Nigel Short and Garry Kasparov match. It wasn't the reportage in the book which fascinated me so much as the insights into chess itself-- the dedication of its top-class players, and the inexhaustible depth of the game. Lawson quotes the phrase "the abysmal depths of chess", coined by Vladimir Nabokov, and this gripped my imagination. I have always loved everything abysmal, deep, bottomless. (The phrase is also quoted in the introduction to The Poetry of Chess.) As has often been pointed out, there are vastly more ways of playing even the first ten moves of the game than there are atoms in the known universe.

My interest in chess receded for various reasons, one of them being my realization that I wasn't very good at it. (I'm bad at games in general.) But the fact that the World Chess champion was beaten by a computer in 1997 also has something to do with it. This might not be very logical-- a car is faster than any human, but track athletics are not considered obsolete. Still, I can hardly help it. In 1981, when this book was written, Andrew Waterman could still write: "The best human players...continue to prevail against computer programmes. The human mind's most vital faculties cannot, it seems, be mechanically replicated." Well, I'm not so sure that playing chess can be considered among "the human mind's most vital faculties", but today it's not even a contest-- computers beat the best players routinely, and the graph is only going to go in one direction.

Waterman's introduction is quite enjoyable. He is a poet himself, but one of the modern school, so his view of poetry is not entirely congenial to me.

I strongly disagree with him here, for instance: "While the moderate chess player, who ought indeed and nowadays in general does refrain, not from studying, but from attempting publishable annotations of grand master games, at least has considerable experience of playing chess, armies of academics instead of sticking to their proper tasks of presenting literature to the young, and the modest clerical work of routine scholarship, burden libraries with inept literary-critical explication undeterred by their lack of first-hand experience of creative writing." C.S. Lewis articulated the most brilliant objection to this attitude (though I forget where): if only a poet can criticize other poets, how on earth does anyone know himself (or anyone else) to be a poet in the first place? It's a closed circle. But perhaps Samuel Johnson put the case more emphatically: "You may abuse a tragedy, though you cannot write one. You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table. It is not your trade to make tables."

All that aside, the introduction is a most enjoyable essay, partly because its subject is so singular. He covers all the ground: the similarities between chess and poetry, the differences between them, the typical metaphors drawn from chess in poetry, a potted history of poets writing about chess, the psychology of poets and of chess players, and an account of his own history playing the game. I could quote many passages, but I will content myself with one:

I once heard an eminent scientist, asked on television about higher creativity in astronomy, cite the chess champion Bobby Fischer talking of a "flash", a brief momentary vision of what might be conjured from the available situation, followed by the sheer detailed labour, necessary but anticlimactic compared with the moment of gestation, almost resented, to realize the conception in actuality. The experience is recognizable to any real poet. Eliot, in "The Three Voices of Poetry", writes that the poet "has something germinating in him for which he must find words; but he cannot know what words he wants until he has found the words; he cannot identify this embryo until it has been transformed into an arrangement of the right words in the right order. When you have the words for it, the "thing" which the words had to be found has disappeared, replaced by a poem."

Andrew Waterman

The book's table of contents shows how many eminent poets have drawn imagery from chess: Richard Lovelace, Oliver Goldsmith, Geoffrey Chaucer, Edward Fitzgerald, John Masefield, Howard Nemerov, Louise Macneice, W.B. Yeats, and many more.

Given this, it might be considered arrogant to include one of my own compositions in this post, rather than anything that appears in the anthology. If Andrew Waterman ever reads this, I hope he is not outraged. However, I did write a chess poem, in my late teens. It was inspired by the sight of a chess board after a game, the pieces standing where they were at the end of play:

The Chess Board

What's left on the black and white squares
When the players end the silent debate?
White pawns in an onslaught that nothing deters
And a king who is captured in mate.
And his fate goes unseen and unwept
For the gods have stepped out of the fray.
Not a glance now is spared, where such vigils were kept,
Now an ending has come to the play.

What's left of the struggle they fought?
A king caught in pointless defeat

And a meaningless win for the agonised thought
That came from this tenantless seat.
And the loser forgets in a while
All his toil on the black and white squares
And the pieces are swept from the rank and the file
And in the end nobody cares.


  1. I remember a James FenimoreCooper novel, which was set before the American Revolution, made mention of a chess set which had elephants instead of castles. The elephants played a fairly important part of the tale. I had heard that this was originally the case with chess sets,but it was interesting to actually read it from a close-to-contemporary novel.

    1. It's very interesting to learn about all these developments of something that seems so standardised to us. I'm glad they went with castles instead of elephants-- they seem more dignified.

  2. Yeeessss.... But..... Castles actually can't move.

    1. You've obviously never seen Howl's Moving Castle!

  3. Not convinced.
    What do you think about Tolkien's Oliphants? I would have just pictured them as being elephants, described by a race such as hobbits that have never seen one, but the film version created a completely different and larger creature, which is not what I would have thought he had in mind,bearing in mind that animals are often exaggerated or misrepresented by anyone describing one for the first time. The native Americans in DEERSLAYER describe the chess pieces as people seeing a depiction of an elephant with completely fresh eyes and with the same awe as Samwise Gamgee had, Tolkien may even have read DEERSLAYER, got the idea from this.

    1. I never really read that section of the book very closely but I had the same impression as you. I can imagine an elephant would be astonishing to someone who had never seen one, although in all honesty, I can't remember ever having seen an elephant. I've been to the zoo in childhood so I must have.