I love sport. I love its intensity, its passion and its poetry. Having said that, I’m not an expert sportsperson. At school, being a short, skinny scrap of humanity, I was never really selected for anything unless you count being called upon when no one else was prepared to attempt the task – usually the 1500 metres, after school, in the rain, against much taller girls from the year above, who ran in spikes and had matching sportswear. I’ll just leave that image hanging there a while… Sorry, where was I? Ah, my love of sport – so, yes, I am an enthusiast who does her best – or at least thinks she does.
This enthusiasm particularly involves watching sport – or rather watching very talented people performing exceptionally well in their chosen discipline. And it is, after all, a performance, isn’t it? There are moments of high drama, tension, suspense and, at times, sublime beauty, moments which together help to generate a term I used earlier: poetry.
I suppose it’s the current media focus on the Rugby Union World Cup that has coloured my poetic thinking somewhat. It’s encouraged me to consider dominant themes in sport poetry. Of course, an instantly recognisable notion is the idea of fleeting youth. Here Housman’s ‘To An Athlete Dying Young’ springs to mind. Or perhaps, rather than death, it could be that the prowess of the individual is just obsolete as in EE Cummings’ ‘Buffalo Bill’s’, which zips along at such a pace. Often sport is used as a metaphor to explore the heroism and ultimate tragedy of war. In Henry Newbolt’s ‘Vitai Lampada’ the idea of being a “good sport” by doing the honourable thing, against all odds, is dominant (and was much satirised later in World War I). ‘Peerless Jim Driscoll’ by Vernon Scannell is a poem often used in secondary schools to explore notions of honesty and humility – and how the reality of a sporting legend can be much more ordinary than you would expect. Sometimes it’s what sport offers that poets focus on. John Betjeman’s ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’ conjures up a heady mix of love and desire in Surrey where the tennis racket is “warm-handled” and the drink of choice “a lime-juice and gin.” Sometimes, however, it’s the redemptive and restorative qualities that are paramount. Sport makes us feel good perhaps by presenting images of our improved selves, although there are occasions when that improvement is little more than boastful exaggeration as in “the making of a small town myth” in Owen Sheers’ ‘Joseph Jones’.
What you will no doubt have noticed about the examples cited is that they are all written by male poets. There are of course many poems written about sport by female poets. I can think of examples like Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The Shirt’ or Lavinia Greenlaw’s ‘Kata’ or Ann Gray’s ‘The Wonder of You’ (and her wonderful exploration of pre-match tension) and Ada Limón’s ‘How to Triumph Like a Girl’ (especially for that phrase about “lady horse swagger”). I wonder whether there are plenty more that I should know about or if the poetry involved is still drawn up along gendered lines. If anyone wishes to comment on this, it would be illuminating to share sporting poems that should be remembered. I look forward to finding out more.
I’ll throw my hat into the ring and include my own offering now. I mentioned earlier that I love watching sport. I’m an ardent Exeter Chiefs supporter and every home match, rain or shine, I can be found in the East Stand shouting myself hoarse. One of the players I admire is Jack Nowell, mentioned in the poem. I think I’ve given you far too much context already but now that Exeter Chiefs are assembling a women’s team, I’m hoping more poetic inspiration will follow. Thank you for reading – oh and I hope you enjoy watching the World Cup!
These are the times (Sport, Passion and Poetry)
There is a time, just before three,
When the steel barrier scrummages with your stomach
And your pasty hops from left to right to left to right in safe hands
And you think,
That could be me pulling on the shirt,
Tying the boots, donning the scrum cap, inserting the gum shield, pushing against walls, pounding the chest,
Attending to those small private observances, imbued with secret meaning,
Changing room doors flag-hammered with impatience, studs staccatoing down the corridor,
Then the silence before emerging into that elemental, brittle matchday brilliance,
And you’re flying now in perfect formation,
With those scrum-buttocked stallions of the Sandy Park squadron,
Your shirt fresh from the wash and gleaming,
Before you’re called back by that chancer Time,
Whispering close to your ear,
“Remember that you are mortal.”
Then, there is a time
When the line is taut and straight and true
And stand-shouted instructions seem a sacrilege
As our jinking Jack, eyes on the back of the pack,
His tattoos crazed, reptilian, our Lizard King on the wing,
Our Cousin Jack, (well, he could be that ‘cause Mother’s people were from Cornwall),
Our golden boy, our winged messenger, quicksilver now, his boots a blessed blur of purity,
And then the sudden sibilance of collective breath released, ready for the rumbling tomahawk chanting, the scarf swirling, the drum booming, all shared in one fierce, fleeting embrace,
As the scoreboard blinks out its latest joy to the world.
And then, there is a time
When the bus home is busy with rugbynoise and peoplesweat and cherrycheeked contentment
And you catch your reflection looking back at you
You see him again,
Keeping perfect pace,
Barefoot now, leaping rain puddles,
Your golden boy,
Running in the dark.