I don’t usually mess around with poetry analysis, but I’ll try anything once……

Mixed Doubles Anyone?

                Poet Roger McGough in his dimensional poem “40 ——————— Love,” cleverly paints a sad picture of two middle aged people that may appear to the reader at first to be spending time playing tennis and enjoying each other’s company.  However, as his brief story unfolds the truth is that other than tennis these two people may have little or no connection to each other. According to Wikipedia the word tennis originates from the French word tenez, which means to “take heed” and it is here that we must consider is the author attempting to warn all of us to take heed?  These days’ men and women have a larger pool of commonality from which to draw from thanks to the changing ideas of what in the gender roles are, and to what degree they should be followed.

He shows equal cleverness in the way he structured the poem. Like the title McGough’s poem has only two words per line and he organizes them into two distinct columns. The first word of each line in aligned under the number 40 in the title and the second word is aligned under love. He also aligns the words so that they form rectangle the shape of a tennis court, he does not though give the reader a representation for the net, this is most likely due to his point that the net real or imagined is always there, regardless of whether you can see the net or not.

 McGough also plays with the words themselves to further his thesis, the word Tennis stands as a one word line and is split syllabically into Ten and nis, he also splits the word between into be- the second word of a line and tween the first word of the line below it. By splitting the words he creates power imagery that allows for him to give a solid viscerally visual representation to the division between men and women.  It also provides a vehicle for an effective demonstration furthering the idea that even when men and women are participating in an event together they’re still separate, allowing the attitudes of the time to stay status quo.

Furthermore by using this structure McGough forces the reader’s eyes to dart from left to right much as the reader might do if they were watching a tennis match. The act of darting one’s eyes back and forth allows the author to draw the reader in the story by re-enforcing the significance of the tennis game.  This as insignificant as it might really seem it appears to be the only flimsy bridge between them. They stand opposite each other and have an exchange across a distance that cannot be spanned because of the net. So each of them stays on their side and only share a little bit between them (represented by the ball.) in a back and forth exchange, where occasionally one of them gets to make a point. It’s because of the time in which the poem is set that one could assume the 40 points belong to the man, as during the time of the poem men were truly in a more dominate position in society.  Love, which in tennis means that individual’s score is zero, can also be both a reference to the position that women had in society and also to the area of what was considered to be a woman’s domain. It also furthers expresses the poet’s views to the reader by giving them a bit of a window into the narrow monotonous empty life the subjects of the poem themselves dwell in.

The poem written in 1971 is truly a reflection of the times. Back then the division between men and women was great, for many people bridging the gap between the sexes was an insurmountable task and resisted openly in such areas as jobs, clubs, and other organizations.  Many men and women back then felt that it was not proper to involve themselves in things their spouses were doing.  For example the men felt they had to be the bread winner, head of the family unit and it was deemed unmanly to do house work, or cook indoors although grilling outdoors was considered a man’s job.  The women were still the homemakers, child raisers and general domestic engineers. Even though the decade before was the starting point for many of the major movements to end inequality based on race and sex.

To that end many of these people grew in a situation of comfortable strangers with their spouses, a situation where both of them feel the obligation to their families and personal reputations require they stay together, put on the brave front of being a happy couple even though they’re not.  The point’s common to those couples besides the children they raised usually fell into a sport like golf or tennis or maybe a night of card playing with other couples in the neighborhood. In most cases the connections were fairly superficial unlike in today’s society were the lines between the roles of men and women are blurred. This point is brought to light when McGough states in him poem;

When                                    the

Game                                    ends

The                                        net

Will                                         still

Be                                           be-

Tween                                  them

They’ve finished their game. The net that will still be between them is the attitudes of the day. To that end their conversation will probably be a brief synopsis of the game perhaps followed by each of them taking turns summarizing their days and future plans regarding life and any problems looming on the horizon. Unfortunately though little actual bonding occurs between them.

Fortunately today the lines between the roles of men and women are less concise but they also came at a cost, perhaps a considerable one.  In the forty one years since the publication of the poem our society has under gone a series of changes some of them subtle, some more dramatic.

Today men and women both compete in the job market more than they have in the past, wages and the ability to be promoted and move up have gotten significantly better, though still not considered completely equal. Today’s high divorce rate has sadly played a role in so far as more than ever before many men and women not only have their own residences, they also maintain them themselves.  Doing so requires each of them to take on tasks and roles that cross the traditional gender roles.  Back in the time of McGough’s poem the divorce rate was low there was a significant stigmatism towards getting divorced. The stigmatism was so severe that people especially women could become ostracized by their families, friends, and society in general. It ruined their personal reputations as society generally thought the process somehow corrupted them because of their inability to maintain a solid marriage.  So people were more willing to compromise and attempt to find workable solutions to marital problems.

These days for most people the stigmatism is gone, many people no longer feel obligated to make an attempt to correct the problems in a failing marriage. A quick no fault divorce and people are free to move on and try to find that new person of their dreams. This, if there are no children involved allows them to perhaps find that special someone. However and unfortunately this is not always the case.

When children are involved they become innocent victims of the attitudes of today’s society not entirely unlike the man and woman described in the poem.  If fact, one could almost look at the poem if had been written today as being more relevant if the game had changed to a doubles match with the parents competing against their children.  Was this side effect really worth it? Could it have been done better? Yes, if people take the time to realize that they need to keep their priorities in order the responsibility to one’s children needs to remain the first priority in their lives. Though sadly this is not always the case, as people lose sight of the needs of their children and instead focus on the needs of themselves.

There is one last image that the poem reveals to us, the last highly visible barrier between men and women is professional sports, currently there are no women competing in sport directly with men, unless you count sailing, horseback riding, and shooting which are Olympic sports and not really consider to be in the professional vein. Yes there are women’s teams, and women do like to be able to participate in sports just like men do.  Even in tennis the most unlikely of sports for the contestants to come into contact with each other. Still has men competing against men and women competing against women.  Demonstrating just how far we haven’t come from the poem’s perspective.

Roger McGough’s one sentence poem may have lost some of it timeliness over the years. It does however continue to provide a point of discussion, and exploration of ourselves and our society, both in who we are and how we perceive the world around us, including who we were, and where we came from.  Not everyone of that time was trapped in the loveless relationship that the poet describes. Not everyone today has found that perfect companion for themselves. As attitudes and beliefs change they tend to bring new problems with them. Hopefully, those problems are less severe than the ones from before.

If we all “take heed” of Mcgough’s poem and continue the process of change we all may one day find the only nets left in our lives are the ones on the court.





McGough, Roger. “40———Love.” Literature and the Writing Process. Elizabeth McMahon…[et al.] 9th

 ed. P.cm. Upper Saddle River. New Jersey. ©2011. Pearson. ISBN -13:978-0-205-74505-0

Wikipedia contributors. “Real tennis.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free

Encyclopedia, 28 Apr. 2012. Web. 8 May. 2012. En.wikipedia.org/wiki/real_tennis





About MartyW47

Attending Triton College. Studying Emergency Services Management & Criminal Justice. Currently employed @ MPPD & Aflac. After 30 years out of school I'm back in College and having a Blast!
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7 Responses to I don’t usually mess around with poetry analysis, but I’ll try anything once……

  1. reocochran says:

    I think this was a complex post and you nailed it! I think the poem itself combining tennis as a metaphor for lacking connection is interesting! Thanks for looking at me, too! Have a wonderful day, Marty!

    • MartyW47 says:

      Thank you for your very kind words, Reo! I enjoy looking around your site as well. It was an interesting piece to try analyzing. I had never heard of the poem or McGough before I under took the challenge. He’s an interesting character. It’s also surprising the number of hits this piece gets, even-though no-one leaves comments (except for you of course) apparently I must be out of touch or just because of it’s simple one line verse and quirky structure English professors delight in assigning it. Of all my posted college papers this one gets the second most hits only my paper on Sir Robert Peel gets more…

  2. Ah! Shades of Riggs vs. King! The battle of the Sexes! McGough nailed it. What an interesting poem and post. Thanks Marty.

    • MartyW47 says:

      Thanks Mimi! this is actually one of my old college papers, It was interesting trying to get the six page requirement out of it… But then again thats why I choose it. I have to laugh at your mentioning Bobby & Billy Jean since they were en vogue at the time he wrote it… I wonder they influenced him…. 🙂

  3. Marty
    Excellent post. I am not sure the progress we have attained and the path we have forged from it, is so much better. I see roles and attitudes burred so much, that it sickens me at times. It is confusing to know sometimes. I know we had to be better than we were, but sometimes I think we went too far. Seems that we can’t take little steps. We take giant leaps that cause us to sail off the planet. Excellent post Marty.

  4. Great post and good interpretation of a very interesting poem-

    • MartyW47 says:

      Thanks Little! I originally took it on because it was such a short poem and that made tough to get 5 pages of analysis for class but I made it… lol!

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