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Poetry and sport
  1. N C Craig Sharp
  1. Brunel University, Borough Road, West London TW7 5DU, and University of Stirling, FK9 4LA, UK

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    Even if one forms the subset from the set of those interested in literature and the set of those interested in sport, there is a substantial proportion who do not know of the many poems that feature sport. Not only are there many hundreds of such poems, but there is a substantial corpus of good poetry within that number.

    On the other hand, great world poets of the 20th century, such as Anna Akhmatova, Juan Luis Borges, T S Eliot, Odysseus Elytis, Garcia Lorca, Somhairle MacGill-Eain, Pablo Neruda, Ezra Pound, W B Yeats, and others, have, collectively, written little about sport. An outstanding exception is Lorca's magnificent Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias.1

    In some cases this may have been due to a misplaced feeling of contempt, as implied by Kipling's “ . . .the flannelled fools at the wicket/The muddied oafs at the goals”, and Yeats2: “If beauty is not a gateway out of the net we were taken in at our birth it will not long be beauty, and we will find it better to sit at home by the fire and fatten a lazy body, or to run hither and thither in some foolish sport.”

    However, Pablo Neruda,3 in his 1935 advocation of “Impure poetry” could talk of: “ . . .a poetry consistent with shameful, disgraceful deeds; with dreams, observations, sleepless nights, presentiments, eruptions of hatred and love; animals, idylls, shocks; negotiations, ideologies, assertions, doubts, tax demands . . .” Sport, in all its facets, could easily slip onto to such a list.

    One difficulty for poets is that sport is an activity that has to be actively sought out, either as spectator or participant. In major events, access is especially hard, and television—for the poet—is not at all a satisfactory substitute. Thus, although there are many hundreds of poems on sport, very few feature high level sport or its participants, which is due in no small measure to sheer difficulty of access. However, excellent sports poetry abounds, of which the following excerpts provide a minute sample.

    First is an early sports medicine poem from the Maitland Folio manuscript 15824 (translation in parentheses):

    Brissit brawnis and brokin banes,

    Stryf, discord and wastie wanis,

    Cruiket in eild, syne halt withal,

    This are the bewteis of the fute-ball.

    (Twisted muscle and broken bones,

    Strife, discord and broken homes,

    Old players stoop, their bodies stall,

    These are the beauties of football.)

    On the physiological side is Peter Meinke's To an athlete turned poet5:

    . . .and now his stomach's soft, his books

    press out his veins as he walks

    and no-one looks

    but deep in his bone stadium

    the roar of the crowd wells.

    While on the motor skill side, from Stanley Matthews, by Alan Ross6:

    . . .Now gathers speed, nursing the ball as he cruises,

    Eyes judging distance, noting the gaps, the spaces

    Vital for colleagues to move to, slowing a trace;

    As from Vivaldi to Dibdin, pausing,

    and leisurely, swings

    To the left upright, his centre, - on hips

    His hands, observing the goalkeeper spring,

    heads rising vainly to the ball's curve

    Just as it's plucked from them; and dispassionately

    Back to his mark he trots, whistling through closed lips.

    From another ball game is Basketball by Stephen Vincent7:

    . . .You never came to see me

    spread my warm fingers like the edges of stars

    round the ball as I went like a smooth fox

    down the court, my tennis shoes squeaking faster

    than a grasshopper through clover. At sixteen

    I travelled fast, father.

    Critic W B Stanford8 has written “The scientists seek facts. The moralists seek virtue. The poets and artists seek—to use an old-fashioned term—beauty, i.e. the effect of artistic excellence on the senses, emotions and mind.” This is exemplified by the following three extracts, starting with Robert Francis' Watching gymnasts5:

    Competing not so much with one another

    As with perfection,

    They follow follow as voices in a fugue

    A severe music.

    How flower-light they toss themselves, how light

    They toss and fall,

    And flower-light, precise and arabesque

    Let their praise be.”

    And Robert Wallace's After the swimmer5:

    Clear, the shaken water

    busies in its claws

    clouds, light,

    from which she climbed.

    And Robert Francis' The skier5:

    He swings down like the flourish of a pen

    Signing a signature in white on white.

    On incandescent feet he falls

    Unfalling, trailing white foam, white fire.

    Another side of skiing is shown in Conrad Diekman's parody Winter trees5:

    I think that I shall never ski

    Again against so stout a tree,

    A tree whose rugged bark is pressed

    In bas-relief upon my chest.

    Golf has a major literature, including many poems, such as Betjeman's Seaside golf9:

    How straight it flew, how long it flew,

    It cleared the rutty track

    And soaring, disappeared from view

    Beyond the bunker's back -

    A glorious, sailing bounding drive

    That made me glad I was alive.

    Highland Games have their own poetic adherents, such as Norman MacCaig10:

    The chieftain leans his English accent

    On a five-foot crook and feels

    one of the natives.

    The rope ring is full

    of strenuous metaphors.

    Unusual sports are not neglected, as Sky diver by Adrien Stoutenberg5:

    Grotesque, jumping out

    like a clothed frog, helmet and glasses,

    arms and legs wading the sky,

    feet flapping before the cloth flower opens.

    Or the sub-aqua Diver by Robert Francis5:

    Diver go down

    Down through the green

    Inverted dawn

    To the dark unseen

    To the never day..

    Deep beneath deep.

    And, still on water sports is First lesson, by Philip Booth5:

    Lie back, daughter, let your head

    be tipped in the cup of my hand.

    . . .when you tire on the long thrash

    to your island, lie up, and survive,

    As you float now, where I held you

    and let go, remember, when fear

    cramps your heart what I told you:

    lie gently and wide to the light-year

    stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

    Surprisingly vivid poetry can be found in Billiards as by Walker Gibson11:

    Painted, polished, here these spheres

    Rehearse their civilised careers -

    Trapped in a geometric toil,

    Exhibit impact and recoil

    Politely in a farce of force . . .

    Of a huge number of climbing poems, none is better than Shelley's Mont Blanc12:

    In the calm darkness of the moonless nights,

    In the lone glare of day, the snows descend

    Upon that mountain; none beholds them there,

    Nor when the flakes burn in the sinking sun,

    Or the star-beams dart through them:

    Betjeman has written the classic club tennis poem, on the prowess of Miss Joan Hunter-Dunn, but Paul Petrie's Old Pro's Lament5 takes a more metaphysical view of the game:

    Each year the court expands,

    the net moves back, the ball

    hums by—with more spin . . .

    But nightly in dreams I see

    an old man

    playing in an empty court

    under the dim floodlights of the moon

    with a racket gone in the strings -

    no net, no ball, no game -

    and still playing to win!

    Still in a philosophical mode, The Stan Cullis blues by Martin Hall13 exemplifies many a soccer club's predicament:

    the night Stan Cullis got the sack

    Wolverhampton wandered round in circles

    like a disallowed goal

    looking for a friendly linesman.

    Blood sports have always attracted poetic comment, as in Winter: East Anglia by Edmund Blunden14:

    But the cornered weasel stands his ground,

    Shrieks at the dogs and boys set round,

    Shrieks as he knows they stand all round,

    And hard as winter dies.

    And two poems of the bullfight: Death invited by May Swenson15:

    Six coloured agonies decking the summit

    of his muscled pride.

    Death invited to die . . .

    Glittering life, in tight pink thighs

    swaggers round a rotunda of screams and Olés.

    And, possibly the greatest of all sports poems, Lorca's Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias1:

    And the bull alone with a high heart!

    at five in the afternoon.

    When the bullring was covered in iodine

    at five in the afternoon.

    Death laid eggs in the wound

    at five in the afternoon...

    And now his blood comes out singing;

    singing along marshes and meadows,

    sliding on frozen horns . . .

    Boxing too has its victims, as Dave Smith records in Blues for Benny Kid Paret16:

    And blood growing wings to fly up in your eyes,

    and there, there the punches no one feels grow weak,

    as the wall looms, break through the best prayer you had

    to dump you dizzied and dreaming in the green grass . . .

    Ezra Pounds' elegiac poem, For E. McC,6 took on an added poignancy after the death at the 1982 world championships in Rome of Ukrainian Olympic champion Volodymyr Smirnov, pierced through the brain by his opponent's snapped foil:

    Gone while your tastes were keen to you,

    Gone where the grey winds call to you,

    By that high fencer, even Death,

    Struck of the blade that no man parrieth . . .

    Pierced of the point that toucheth lastly all.

    In contrast, there is much humorous verse on sport, some of the best of it written by Roger McGough,17 as in Cousin Caroline, the sprinter who:

    . . .in the winter

    of 1968 with a

    bandaged knee

    ran the 100

    metres in 10.3;

    But her best time

    was in the dressing room afterwards.

    Finally, poets have not neglected ethics, as in Good sportsmanship by Richard Armour5:

    Good sportsmanship we hail, we sing,

    It's always pleasant when you spot it.

    There's only one unhappy thing:

    You have got to lose to prove you've got it.

    It is hoped that the above at least indicates the range of sports poetry. Robert Frost (who thought that writing poetry without rhyme was like “playing tennis without a net”) always maintained that there was a connection between all of the sports and poetry, and Lilian Morrison18 would agree: “There is an affinity between sports and poetry. Each is a form of play; each is a form of ritual. Each has the power to lift us out of ourselves. They go together wherever there is a zest for life.” Let Eleanor and Herbert Farjeon have the last poetic word:

    But memory will play again

    Many and many a day again

    The game that's done, the game

    that's never done.


    Note: The Lodge and the Bold editions above, and The Poetry of sport, in the Badminton Series (Longman's Green and Co), form an excellent introduction to poetry and sport.


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