Sporting Poetry: Seeing far beyond the scoreboard
From George Best to Christy Ring, theirs is an eye that picks up things others do not
George Best celebrates scoring Manchester United’s second goal during the 1968 European Cup Final against Benfica at Wembley. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images
Maybe the price sports writing pays for daily beat writers whose job is volume and speed as much as reflection is that points of difference between various publications become blurred.
Whether its tabloid or broadsheet or online, language becomes similar, familiar phrases jump off the page. In rugby there is a ‘massive hit’ or an ‘insane pass’. Roger Federer is ‘poetry in motion’ and Lionel Messi’s ‘silken skills’ mesmerise.
We know when ‘Ronnie Whelan billows the cobweb’ he had scored a goal for Liverpool and that Dublin’s Johnny Cooper ‘always steps up to the plate’. Bill Belichick might have told you ‘offence sells tickets, defence wins championships’ or that in every genuine sports event the players ‘pull no punches’.
Of course it doesn’t have to be like that. Sports writers comprehend language. Given time they understand tension and conflict. A long piece of writing with no tempo is one where you struggle to make it to the finish line. Short is often better than long and long sometimes better than short.
But poets know the principles of writing and pace better than most. Every poem is different from another, the points of difference endless. Theirs is an eye that picks up things others do not.
Understanding of how events and people fit into a bigger world affords the ability to see beyond the scoreboard. Or, at least they give themselves the time and space to try to do that.
The result is a richer understanding and maybe even the revelation of things we might not ordinarily see.
“Paddy dashed back to goal like a woman who smells her cake burning.”
Houlihan dabbled in poetry and often wrote for himself, his imagery became interwoven with his sports journalism. Or Hugh McIvanney, writing in 1980 about the tragic death of boxer Johnny Owen in Los Angeles, spoke of the Welshman’s “skeletal frame, that takes hold of the heart and makes unbearable the thought of him being badly hurt.”
McIlvanney goes on to coin one of the most pilfered lines in sports writing. “It was boxing that gave Johnny Owen his one positive means of self-expression . . . It is his tragedy that he found himself articulate in such a dangerous language.”
One of the tributes paid to McIlvanney after his death last year at 84 was that he was “a giant with a genius for transforming sport into literature”.
Those who love sport understand that and know that sport and sports writing can be closely aligned. Sport is not only about that (cliché alert) the scoreboard never lies.
But poetry – whatever that is without digressing down a rabbit hole – creates the right tone to convey the larger meaning of the game or person. Take the mini-masterpiece by the great modern playwright Harold Pinter.
Pinter wrote about the England batsman Len Hutton, who set a record in 1938 for the highest individual innings in a Test match in only his sixth Test appearance. He scored 364 runs against Australia, a milestone that stood for nearly 20 years.
“I saw Len Hutton in his prime
Another time, another time”
That’s it. There is an apocryphal tale that goes Pinter sent the poem to Hutton for his view and then some time later inquired why he had not had a reply. The line came back from Hutton that he hadn’t finished it yet.
Cricket has always been of another time. It’s in its DNA.
Park captures less Best’s place in time as his unnatural gifts of movement and balance, almost magical abilities that defy words. When or where the poet saw the Belfast player is irrelevant.
Park sets out to create a sketch of a virtuoso. In the end he might have failed to capture what he set out to do. But he succeeds in conveying the essence of George Best.
“Once I tried to pin him to the page
Tackle him with the heaviness of words
But with a sudden drop of one shoulder
And a slight shimmy of hips he was gone,
Leaving me stumbling off balance,
The page a withering wake of empty space,
His heels disappearing into the distance
Like some skipping dance of trickster light.”
Sport loves rivalry and conflict like no other. In tennis Björn Borg and John McEnroe divided the tennis world of the 1970s and 1980s. Borg was the automaton, the super chilled Swede and the perfect foil for the firebrand from New York. Ice and fire was newsprint’s favoured metaphor.
But Borg was also hip with his long blonde mane and the faraway gaze. Was it deep or was it blank? But it didn’t matter when he was sipping from a glass in New York’s Studio 54 with Bianca Jagger at his side. Borg won 11 Grand Slams before he enigmatically retired to his penthouse in Monte Carlo at 26-years-old.
There is an interesting sub plot to Borg’s retirement in that a crushed McEnroe begged him not to do it. Beyond the self destructive fury of the American’s temper he understood the competitive tension that they had generated was pure, dramatic gold.
Poet William Scammell captures more Borg’s physicality and the way he played tennis. But at the end he reminds us of the transcendent tennis figure he had become, a deity of the sport, who actually looked godly.
“Eyes criminally close together,
fastest feet in the business,
Borg’s ground strokes would have landed
in Kensington but for
one small consideration: topspin.
He struck them as stepmothers
once brushed their daughter’s hair.
Nobody knew what went on
behind that block of stone,
whether chess against a breaking wave
or just a corny Abba tune.
At the end of the end
he’d sink to his knees
in a parody of prayer
as the lightning went through him
eyes fists hair”
Another of sport’s appeals is that it constantly offers the eternal prospect of new beginnings, whether it is moment to moment, week to week or year to year. It is also about progression and attachment, the son playing with the father, a suburban yard, the local field, nostalgia and dreams.
You learn the rules of the game alongside bigger things like sacrifice and failure and effort. Like baseball in the USA, Gaelic games in Ireland is also torn from the land and is essentially Irish. It is us. Because of that the GAA has grown out of more sacred ground.
Theo Dorgan, the Irish poet, writer and lecturer senses both the grasp on history of Christy Ring and the cruelty of age on an icon, who nonetheless, continued to breathe fire. Renewal, life’s rhythm and memories also feature.
And memories are crucial. In the immediacy and excitement of the conflict they can sometimes be overlooked. But memory is an essential piece of what it is we take from Croke Park, Lansdowne Road, an Olympic boxing ring in London or the first encounter with a sporting god.
Dorgan’s poem about Ring “And did you once see Shelly playin?”, published in the spring of 1998 in a special Sports Pages edition of Poetry Ireland Review, also expresses the ambience sporting greatness can create around itself.
“I saw Cuchulainn in his latter years,
Great knots of muscle in his shoulders,
The basilica of his skull in the afternoon.
I saw him drive younger warriors from the field,
By the fierce power of his eye on the frozen ball,
His gift for gathering and unleashing force.
He fought each autumn match through a fog of glories,
Already legend, the air he prowled in doubled,
And his step doubled with a younger self.
I saw his last matches for the Glen, the young bucks
Already impatient to sweep him to the heavens
Where blood and frozen knuckles, mud and defeat
Or victory would fade into remembered youth –
A child myself I sensed their insensate cruelty,
The rightful precise impatience of the young.
Powerful because legend, his powers already fading,
Each match by then a match with himself only,
The grammar of ageing played out in the Mardyke mud –
Christ he was younger than I am now!
My father’s age, who seemed so old to me.
And now so young. So it goes on the old parade
Through sweat and mud and memory, the hero,
His followers and his fellow warriors –
Out there on the grass-banked terrace
A round-eyed child in his own fog of doubt,
Testing the fix in a spin or words and meanings,
“That’s him, I’m looking at him, Christy Ring.”
There is little doubt sport and poetry are sometimes uncomfortable bed fellows; the long list of sporting clichés, celebrity figures who garner more pity than admiration, the fatuous brash and boastful. But poetry has its own impenetrable esoteric wing and its own set of celebrity and snob.
The two set out to accomplish different outcomes. That doesn’t mean there is no poetry in sport or vice versa in the writing or otherwise.
Basketball’s Kobe Bryant knew what winning meant more than anything. More than his talent he knew about grind and heart and the ability to hang in. He understood the prosaic stuff allowed him express his genius.
Then when he decided to retire in 2016 his choice of expression about leaving a competitive life forever was through poetry. In a direct address, a clear and unequivocal understanding that it was all over, he wrote ‘Dear Basketball.’
“But I can’t love you obsessively for much longer/We have given each other/All that we have.”
The two are never far away. It’s something Wendy Cope, a contemporary English poet, understands, albeit with her tongue firmly in cheek. Cope’s ‘Sporty People’ challenges perception, her own perception as well. Perhaps that’s a lead to follow. Even the title is a casual dismissal of all things sweaty, round or oval shaped. Deliberately done, although at the end she pokes ‘sporty people’ with the pointy stick again. Take what you want. But some would see irascible humour.
And she does illustrate that just as a county tennis champion can be an interesting, intellectual person, so can a poet incubate prejudice and ignorance. An ignorant poet. It’s hard to get your head around that. Right.
How could that happen?
How could I accidentally
Make friends with a tennis champion?
How could a tennis champion
Make friends with me?
She wasn’t stupid. She read books.
She had never been mean to me
For being bad at games.
I decided to forgive
Her unfortunate past.
Sporty people can be OK –
Of course they can.
Later on, I met poets
Who played football. It’s still hard
To get my head round that.”