“The best songs are body songs.”
Poets are word athletes, and the poems they make are word performances. Good poems are not static but dynamic—they dramatize the motions of life. For instance, we admire a “good move” in a game or in a poem. Larry Bird suddenly fakes out a defender, leaps in the air and lifts the ball off his fingertips toward the basket — swish. And a poem, near its end, suddenly “turns” and concludes with a powerful flourish. We appreciate both poet and athlete because we have witnessed a moment of grace.
Recent studies of the human brain have shown that it consists of a newly-evolved neocortex, which has to do with analyzing and logic; and an ancient “hindbrain,” which has to do with feelings and bodily responses to the environment. Science and philosophy emanate from the neocortex, poetry and art from the primitive brain. It’s not that poem-making involves only feelings. It also has its analytical part: revising means consciously manipulating words, a process called “conscious artistry” by one writer (Burnshaw 56-57). The point is that poetry, as is true of any art, is preeminently a function of the senses.
Because poetry is so gestural arid physical, it is difficult to analyze. We can like or dislike a poem long before we “understand” it; this is because our response is only partly a matter of conscious thought. The great poet/scholar A.E. Housman illustrated this truth when he wrote:
|Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act. This particular symptom is accompanied by a shiver down the spine; there is another which consists in a constriction of the throat and a precipitation of water to the eyes; and there is a third which I can only describe by borrowing a phrase from one of Keats’s last letters, where he says, speaking of Fanny Brawne, ‘everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear.’ The seat of this sensation is the pit of the stomach. (38)|
One of the reasons poetry is so hard to “teach” in school is that it is assumed to be not an art but rather a “subject”—something that can be dealt with logically. Students are given poems to read and discuss and write about, and then tested on the “material” as if it were a quantifiable thing to learn, like gas laws. (Fiction is a safer genre to work with because it is paraphrasable, and one can more easily skim so-called “themes” off the top of it.) Since poetry is associated with the older, primitive side of our nature, it will always resist classroom analysis.
Watch children listening to nursery rimes. They don’t listen passively; they listen physically as the lines are chanted. They respond not merely with their minds but with their bodies, and that is exactly the response these body poems are intended to elicit.
A poem is nothing if not physical. Stanley Burnshaw in his book The Seamless Web writes:
|But words are also biology. Except for a handful of poets and scholars, nobody has taken time to consider the feeling of verbal sounds in the physical organism. Even today—despite all the public reciting of verse, the recordings, the classroom markings of prosody—the muscular sensation of words is virtually ignored by all but poets who know how much the body is engaged by a poem. (206)|
“Poetry in motion” is a cliche often used to describe an athlete performing. The phrase aptly illustrates the fact that sports or any kind of graceful movement can be appropriate subject matter for poetry. In other words, sports have a built-in fluidity and encantatory quality that we naturally associate with poetry, and vice versa. (When I use the word “sports” in “sports poems,” I include, along with the usual definition of “games with rules,” the looser senses such as “an active pastime or recreation” and “to play and frolic.” If a poem works on the basis of some physical action—if that is what it is “about”—then it qualifies as a sports or body poem.)
The mature athlete in motion, like a good poem in motion, is (another cliche) a thing of beauty. We appreciate the lively precision of a dive by Greg Louganis or a vault by Mary Lou Retton. The performance becomes memorable in the same way that a poem’s lines stay with us long after we have heard them read or have read them ourselves. Seeing a perfect dive or vault over and over on instant replay is equivalent to repeating aloud the lines of a great poem.
Obviously, using sports as a subject for a poem does not guarantee literary success. But when a poet describes an athlete in action, that poet is taking advantage of a genuinely dramatic structure: the movement or event itself. “Poetry is as good as it is dramatic,” said the athlete/poet Robert Frost, the author of one of our best sports poems, “Birches.” The poem is about a rural boy “too far from town to learn baseball,” who had to invent his own sport by climbing birch trees and swinging on their branches. The athleticism of the experience is conveyed in lines such as these:
|Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground. (39-40)
The joy of a lone boy’s play—of a whole childhood, ours as well—is fixed in those lines, which no doubt were inspired by a real experience.
Over the years I’ve been aware of two basic types of sports or body poems. The first type is what I call participatory. In this poem the poet remembers an athletic experience, then converts the experience into language. The poet relies on the drama inherent in the action depicted—in other words, allows the experience to carry the poem, to be the poem.
James Dickey’s “Encounter in the Cage Country” is an example of a participatory poem. A man in sunglasses walking through an indoor zoo is suddenly “caught” by a leopard’s eye. He doesn’t just stand there and stare back at the cat, but spontaneously begins to “perform,”
|___first saunt’ring___ then stalking
Back and forth like a sentry___ faked
As if to run __and at one brilliant moveI made as though drawing a gun from my hip-
bone, the bite-sized children broke
Up__ changing their concept of laughter…(21-26)
But the leopard, evidently transfixed by the sunglasses, only watches, “alert, attentive,” as the man performs before its cage. The man finishes his act and leaves, the cat following him “right to the end / of concrete.” Outside in the sun, he takes off his glasses and feels, after the strange encounter, “inside and out/of myself” and concludes:
|___________and something was given a life-mission to say to me hungrily over
And over and over ___your moves are exactly right
At least two things strike me about this poem. First, the comic-ironic duality: the free-moving, clumsy-by-comparison human versus the caged, graceful leopard. Second, the crucial linking of these two different animals, an identity sparked by the odd athletic movements of the speaker. It is as if the encounter has forced the man to express a wordless, wholly physical and animalistic “something” that has always been waiting in his body to be expressed. He has discovered some “moves [that] are exactly right / for a few things in this world.”
“Encounter” is much more than it seems. Beyond, or rather through its play aspect, it is an ecological statement which says that we are related to all other species in the creation, and that, in Joseph Wood Krutch’s words, “only by feeling with them can we truly feel about them” (53). I am also reminded of Henry Bestoris words in his classic, The Outermost House:
|For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth. (25)|
The second type of sports poem is non-participatory. In this poem the speaker describes, say, an athlete in action, but is not involved directly in the experience described. The poet may or not be writing out of a personal body memory, but is observing from a distance. Sometimes, as in many participatory poems, the writer is almost purely descriptive. An example would be Walt Whitman’s short poem “The Runner”:
|On a flat road runs the well-train’d runner,
He is lean and sinewy with muscular legs,
He is thinly clothed, he leans forward as he runs,
With lightly closed fists and arms partially rais’d.
More typically, the non-participatory poem goes beyond description and makes a statement, not only about athletes or sports, but about life. Robert Francis is one of the best practitioners of this kind of poem. Francis has written about ball players, gymnasts, divers, skiers, and other athletes. Most of his sports poems demonstrate a detachment which allows him to comment as he describes. For instance, from “Watching Gymnasts”:
|How flower-light they toss themselves, how light
They toss and fall
_____And flower-light, precise, and arabesque
_____Let their praise be. (9-12)
The elegant tone—which is a function of distancing— the repetition of light syllables and syntax, the obvious admiration the speaker has for the gymnasts all these add up to a description of how it must feel to be a gymnast: as well as a definition and celebration of the sport.
Another example is found in these lines from “High Diver”:
|How deep is his duplicity who in a flash
Passes from resting bird to flying bird to fish.
Who momentarily is sculpture, then all motion,
Speed and splash, then climbs again to contemplation.
He is the archer who himself is bow and arrow.
He is the upper-under-world-commuting here. (1-6)
The main difference between the non-participatory poem and the participatory poem is that in the former there is distance between speaker and action. This distance—which is not simply a matter of using the third person point of view instead of the first person—allows the poet to make distinctions, to analyze, to summarize, and so on. In the opening lines of “The Diver” quoted above, Francis, the careful observer, correlates physical actions with such abstract ideas as “duplicity” and “contemplation.” He also defines the diver and his sport by using several apt metaphors: archer, arrow, sculpture, bird, fish. But as we read this poem we are not inclined to identify with the speaker as if he were the diver himself. We, like the poet, are watchers of grace.
Stanley Kunitz wrote that “the words of a poem go back to the beginnings of the human adventure when the first symbols were not spoken but sung or chanted or danced” (50-53). If that is so, then sports or body poems may be among our oldest artistic expressions. These poems remind us that the body has its own language, its own wisdom. They tell us to keep moving, to keep our senses awake, to stay in shape. They teach and celebrate awareness.
Beston, Henry. The Outermost House. New York: Rinehart & Company, Inc., 1949.
Bumshaw, Stanley. The Seamless Web. New York: George Braziller, 1970.
Dickey, James. Poems 1957-1967. Wesleyan University Press, 1967.
Frost, Robert. Complete Poems of Robert Frost. Holt, Rinehart, Winston, Inc., 1936.
Housman, A. E. The Name and Nature of Poetry. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1950.
Krutch, Joseph Wood. Great American Nature Writing. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1950.
Kunitz, Stanley. Next to Last Things. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1985.