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Poetry and Sports
While sports fans may not be widely known for their literary passions, the relationship between literature and athletic competition can be traced as far back as ancient Greece where spectator sports often included literary events as part of the festivities, and champion athletes were known to commission poets to write their victory songs. Even our own Walt Whitman was a baseball lover. Reporting for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1846, he wrote: "In our sun-down perambulations, of late, through the outer parts of Brooklyn, we have observed several parties of youngsters playing 'base,' a certain game of ball...Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms...the game of ball is glorious."
We hope this collection not only demonstrates a variety of play and seriousness, but also frames poetry itself—the craft and game of it—as a lively and reactive art form, a pastime as great as any sport.
to the football coaches of Clemson College, 1942 One dot Grainily shifting we at roadside and The smallest wings coming along the rail fence out Of the woods one dot of all that green. It now Becomes flesh-crawling then the quite still Of stinging. I must live faster for my terrified Small son it is on him. Has come. Clings. Old wingback, come To life. If your knee action is high Enough, the fat may fall in time God damn You, Dickey, dig this is your last time to cut And run but you must give it everything you have Left, for screaming near your screaming child is the sheer Murder of California traffic: some bee hangs driving Your child Blindly onto the highway. Get there however Is still possible. Long live what I badly did At Clemson and all of my clumsiest drives For the ball all of my trying to turn The corner downfield and my spindling explosions Through the five-hole over tackle. O backfield Coach Shag Norton, Tell me as you never yet have told me To get the lead out scream whatever will get The slow-motion of middle age off me I cannot Make it this way I will have to leave My feet they are gone I have him where He lives and down we go singing with screams into The dirt, Son-screams of fathers screams of dead coaches turning To approval and from between us the bee rises screaming With flight grainily shifting riding the rail fence Back into the woods traffic blasting past us Unchanged, nothing heard through the air- conditioning glass we lying at roadside full Of the forearm prints Of roadrocks strawberries on our elbows as from Scrimmage with the varsity now we can get Up stand turn away from the highway look straight Into trees. See, there is nothing coming out no Smallest wing no shift of a flight-grain nothing Nothing. Let us go in, son, and listen For some tobacco- mumbling voice in the branches to say “That’s a little better,” to our lives still hanging By a hair. There is nothing to stop us we can go Deep deeper into elms, and listen to traffic die Roaring, like a football crowd from which we have Vanished. Dead coaches live in the air, son live In the ear Like fathers, and urge and urge. They want you better Than you are. When needed, they rise and curse you they scream When something must be saved. Here, under this tree, We can sit down. You can sleep, and I can try To give back what I have earned by keeping us Alive, and safe from bees: the smile of some kind Of savior— Of touchdowns, of fumbles, battles, Lives. Let me sit here with you, son As on the bench, while the first string takes back Over, far away and say with my silentest tongue, with the man- creating bruises of my arms with a live leaf a quick Dead hand on my shoulder, “Coach Norton, I am your boy.”
I take my $, buy a pair of very bright kicks for the game at the bottom of the hill on Tuesday w / Tone who averages 19.4 points a game, & told me about this spot, & this salesman w / gold ringed fingers fitting a $100 dollar NBA Air Avenger over the white part of me–my sock, my heel & sole, though I tell him Avengers are too flashy & buy blue & white Air Flights w / the dough I was suppose to use to pay the light bill & worse, use the change to buy an Ella Fitzgerald CD at Jerrys, then take them both in a bag past salesmen & pedestrians to the C where there is a girl I'd marry if I was Pablo Neruda & after 3, 4 blocks, I spill out humming "April in Paris" while a lady w / a 12 inch cigar calls the driver a facist cuz he won't let her smoke on the bus & skinny Derrick rolls up in a borrowed Pontiac w / room for me, my kicks & Ella on his way to see The Lost World alone & though I think the title could mean something else, I give him some skin & remember the last time I saw him I was on the B-ball court after dark w / a white girl who'd borrowed my shorts & the only other person out was Derrick throwing a Spalding at the crooked rim no one usually shoots at while I tried not to look his way & thought how we used to talk about black women & desire & how I was betraying him then creeping out after sundown with a girl in my shorts & white skin that slept around me the 5 or 6 weeks before she got tired of late night hoop lessons & hiding out in my crib there at the top of the hill Derrick drove up still talking, not about black girls, but dinosaurs which if I was listening could have been talk about loneliness, but I wasn't, even when he said, "We should go to the movies sometime," & stopped.
Snow up to our waists and coming down still. There was a field here once, when we began. We marked the end zones and set up the goals. Now nobody can even move, much less tackle. I am Ganymede fleeing on a temple frieze. We stand around like lovesick Neanderthals. We’re Pompeian before Pompeii was hot. We have the aspect of the classic dead Or of stranded, shivering astronauts. It was early in the era of the pause button: We paused and paused the afternoons away Indoors, blasting our ballistic erections At the blurred bikinis of celebrities, Then, splaying on the linoleum floor, Awaited the apportioned pizza delivery. Now, someone has paused us, or so it appears, But they didn’t pause the snow, or the hour: As the one gets higher, the other gets later.
I’m almost forty and just understanding my father
doesn’t like me. At thirteen I quit basketball, the next year
refused to hunt, I knew he was disappointed, but never
thought he didn’t have to like me
to love me. No girls. Never learned
to drive a stick. Chose the kitchen and mom
while he went to the woods with friends who had sons
like he wanted. He tried fishing—a rod and reel
under the tree one Christmas. Years I tried
talking deeper, acting tougher
when we were together. Last summer
I went with him to buy a tractor.
In case he needs help, Mom said. He didn’t look at me
as he and the sales guy tied the wheels to the trailer, perfect
boy-scout knots. Why do I sometimes wish I could be a man
who cares about cars and football, who carries a pocketknife
and needs it? It was January when he screamed: I’m not
a student, don’t talk down to me! I yelled: You’re not smart enough
to be one! I learned to fight like his father, like him, like men:
the meanest guy wins, don't ever apologize.
(Suggested by post-game broadcasts)
Fanaticism? No. Writing is exciting and baseball is like writing. You can never tell with either how it will go or what you will do; generating excitement— a fever in the victim— pitcher, catcher, fielder, batter. Victim in what category? Owlman watching from the press box? To whom does it apply? Who is excited? Might it be I? It's a pitcher's battle all the way—a duel— a catcher's, as, with cruel puma paw, Elston Howard lumbers lightly back to plate. (His spring de-winged a bat swing.) They have that killer instinct; yet Elston—whose catching arm has hurt them all with the bat— when questioned, says, unenviously, "I'm very satisfied. We won." Shorn of the batting crown, says, "We"; robbed by a technicality. When three players on a side play three positions and modify conditions, the massive run need not be everything. "Going, going . . . " Is it? Roger Maris has it, running fast. You will never see a finer catch. Well . . . "Mickey, leaping like the devil"—why gild it, although deer sounds better— snares what was speeding towards its treetop nest, one-handing the souvenir-to-be meant to be caught by you or me. Assign Yogi Berra to Cape Canaveral; he could handle any missile. He is no feather. "Strike! . . . Strike two!" Fouled back. A blur. It's gone. You would infer that the bat had eyes. He put the wood to that one. Praised, Skowron says, "Thanks, Mel. I think I helped a little bit." All business, each, and modesty. Blanchard, Richardson, Kubek, Boyer. In that galaxy of nine, say which won the pennant? Each. It was he. Those two magnificent saves from the knee-throws by Boyer, finesses in twos— like Whitey's three kinds of pitch and pre- diagnosis with pick-off psychosis. Pitching is a large subject. Your arm, too true at first, can learn to catch your corners—even trouble Mickey Mantle. ("Grazed a Yankee! My baby pitcher, Montejo!" With some pedagogy, you'll be tough, premature prodigy.) They crowd him and curve him and aim for the knees. Trying indeed! The secret implying: "I can stand here, bat held steady." One may suit him; none has hit him. Imponderables smite him. Muscle kinks, infections, spike wounds require food, rest, respite from ruffians. (Drat it! Celebrity costs privacy!) Cow's milk, "tiger's milk," soy milk, carrot juice, brewer's yeast (high-potency— concentrates presage victory sped by Luis Arroyo, Hector Lopez— deadly in a pinch. And "Yes, it's work; I want you to bear down, but enjoy it while you're doing it." Mr. Houk and Mr. Sain, if you have a rummage sale, don't sell Roland Sheldon or Tom Tresh. Studded with stars in belt and crown, the Stadium is an adastrium. O flashing Orion, your stars are muscled like the lion.
In Memory of Dennis Turner, 1946-1984 A hook shot kisses the rim and hangs there, helplessly, but doesn’t drop, and for once our gangly starting center boxes out his man and times his jump perfectly, gathering the orange leather from the air like a cherished possession and spinning around to throw a strike to the outlet who is already shoveling an underhand pass toward the other guard scissoring past a flat-footed defender who looks stunned and nailed to the floor in the wrong direction, trying to catch sight of a high, gliding dribble and a man letting the play develop in front of him in slow motion, almost exactly like a coach’s drawing on the blackboard, both forwards racing down the court the way that forwards should, fanning out and filling the lanes in tandem, moving together as brothers passing the ball between them without a dribble, without a single bounce hitting the hardwood until the guard finally lunges out and commits to the wrong man while the power-forward explodes past them in a fury, taking the ball into the air by himself now and laying it gently against the glass for a lay-up, but losing his balance in the process, inexplicably falling, hitting the floor with a wild, headlong motion for the game he loved like a country and swiveling back to see an orange blur floating perfectly through the net.
In the Shreve High football stadium, I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville, And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood, And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel, Dreaming of heroes. All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home. Their women cluck like starved pullets, Dying for love. Therefore, Their sons grow suicidally beautiful At the beginning of October, And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.
after practice: right foot to left foot, stepping forward and back, to right foot and left foot, and left foot up to his thigh, holding it on his thigh as he twists around in a circle, until it rolls down the inside of his leg, like a tickle of sweat, not catching and tapping on the soft side of his foot, and juggling once, twice, three times, hopping on one foot like a jump-roper in the gym, now trapping and holding the ball in midair, balancing it on the instep of his weak left foot, stepping forward and forward and back, then lifting it overhead until it hangs there; and squaring off his body, he keeps the ball aloft with a nudge of his neck, heading it from side to side, softer and softer, like a dying refrain, until the ball, slowing, balances itself on his hairline, the hot sun and sweat filling his eyes as he jiggles this way and that, then flicking it up gently, hunching his shoulders and tilting his head back, he traps it in the hollow of his neck, and bending at the waist, sees his shadow, his dangling T-shirt, the bent blades of brown grass in summer heat; and relaxing, the ball slipping down his back. . .and missing his foot. He wheels around, he marches over the ball, as if it were a rock he stumbled into, and pressing his left foot against it, he pushes it against the inside of his right until it pops into the air, is heeled over his head—the rainbow!— and settles on his extended thigh before rolling over his knee and down his shin, so he can juggle it again from his left foot to his right foot —and right foot to left foot to thigh— as he wanders, on the last day of summer, around the empty field.