Friday, June 01, 2012

Poetry in motion

What makes a sport poetic?

I'm teaching a freshman class this fall on Sports Literature and so I've been working my way through Motion: American Sports Poems, a lively and readable little anthology edited by Noah Blaustein. In just over 200 pages, it serves up some pretty big hitters: here's William Carlos Williams communing with Richard Wilbur and James Wright, and who knew Marianne Moore wrote a poem about baseball? Yusuf Kumunyakaa's "Slam, Dunk, and Hook" is always a big hit when I teach it in American Lit Survey, but why have I never before encountered "Forty-One Seconds on a Sunday," Quincy Troupe's remarkable villanelle about Michael Jordan?

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised at the number of poems about old guys trying to regain past glory, but I was startled at how often death steps in and stops the game. Some poems are studded with big names like Satchel Paige, Vince Lombardi, Mickey Mantle, and Muhammad Ali, while more intimate poems celebrate the fathers, grandfathers, and nameless neighbors who leave their mark on the field of play.

The topical index at the back of the book suggests that some sports inspire more poetry than others. Diving, bowling, curling, and karate each have only one entry in the index, while fishing has eight and running six. This is, of course, a collection of American sports poems, which may begin to explain why there's only one entry each for bullfighting and soccer.

I wouldn't consider boxing a particularly poetic sport, but the book includes 11 boxing poems, compared to only six on football (but one of those six is James Wright's "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio," which says so much in three short stanzas that it ought to count double).   

When it comes to volume, two sports beat all the others hands down: basketball (17 poems) and baseball (a whopping 29, although I don't recall seeing the word "whopping" in any of them). My favorite, I think, is a lovely 10-line poem by Robert Francis called "Pitcher," but when I try to find the full text online, I am bombarded by links to student essays of the sort I may encounter this fall. "Pitcher," they insist, is a "relatable" poem the writers can really "connect" with but although it is "mostly a poem with a baseball-like theme," it's not really about baseball. 

I notice that Noah Blaustein did not include a listing in the index for sports poems that are not really about sports, but I have a feeling my students will discover many examples of the type. The not-really-about-sports poem: our most poetic sport. 


Bardiac said...

Ooo, cool! Do you know Tim Krabbe's *The Rider*? it's a short, lovely book about a bike race in France.

Personally, as a female who was just the right age to get smacked down before Title IX, I hate the way baseball counts as "American" for so many people, especially writers. I could throw a hardball as a kid, but I couldn't palm a softball and so couldn't throw it properly, but that's what I was forced to play. And of course, I couldn't. Gah, I have to stop because the bile is rising. The sexism in big time sports (yes, including cycling) is so effing vile.

Bev said...

I know! There are a few softball poems in the anthology and a good number of poems by women, including a terrific poem on Muhammad Ali by Elizabeth Alexander. We also have Elizabeth Bishop ("The Fish") and Marge Piercy on middle-aged women running, which probably appeals to me more than it would to a bunch of 18-year-olds. The fiction anthology I'm using includes "Raymond's Run" by Toni Cade Bambara, which is narrated by a spunky inner-city girl who loves to run, a really terrific story. Then there's a story called "Revenge" by Ellen Gilchrist in which a girl would rather run than be a bridesmaid. But the predominance of male voices is annoying.