For Part 1 of the "We Can Be Heroes" Olympics series, click here
For Part 2 of the "We Can Be Heroes" Olympics series, click here
For Part 3 of the "We Can Be Heroes" Olympics series, click here
For Part 4 of the "We Can Be Heroes" Olympics series, click here
For Part 5of the "We Can Be Heroes" Olympics series, click here
"How thin and bloodless seem the Whiteman's sports in comparison with
that splendid display of mental and bodily combat between these tawny
throngs of Redmen." — Tekahionwake (Mohawk poet 1861 – 1913)
For the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, lacrosse is a part of life; for some, it is a way of life. Growing up in Western New York, just across the Niagara River from Canada and my grandfather's birthplace at Six Nations Reserve, I was aware of lacrosse from my earliest memory. I believe the first game I attended was with my Cayuga uncle, Hubert. He took me and a cousin to a game at the arena in Hagersville, Ontario. Trips up to my grandmother's birthplace at Akwesasne were punctuated with discussions of lacrosse and hockey games as well. There was not a family we visited, including our own, that did not have lacrosse sticks, wooden or aluminum, with sinew webbing or nylon, hanging on the walls of their sheds and garages. Western New York is Seneca Nation territory, where frequent games are played between the Newtown Golden Eagles and other teams, such as the Onondaga Red Hawks, the Six Nations Slash, and the Allegeny Arrows.
Lacrosse is known as The Creator's Game. It is said that lacrosse existed in the Creator's mind even before human beings or Onkwehonwe had been created. When the Good Twin and the Evil Twin were battling for control of the earth, lacrosse was one of the many games to which they challenged one another. After the good twin proved victorious and created human beings, these new beings played lacrosse to honour the Creator and show thanks for their good health and strong minds. It is also considered a "medicine game" and games can be called to renew the strength and vigour of a community, as well as to resolve disputes. Elders were at times informed by dreams that a game of lacrosse was needed to strengthen the community or condole the loss of a member.
Tewaaráton received its more popular name when an early French missionary to Upper Canada (and future martyr), Jean de Brebeuf, wrote in 1636 of some Iroquois playing a game with a webbed stick shaped like a bishop's staff or crosier. The Jesuits condemned lacrosse for its "violence," but that did not stop the Haudenosaunee from playing. Originally the playing field could be up to a mile in length and involved hundreds of people. Some games are recorded to have lasted two or three days.
One of the most famous games in history occurred in 1763. It was June 4th, King George III's birthday and a group of Sauk and Ojibwa Natives proposed an exhibition game in honour of the King's birthday outside the walls of Fort Michilimackinac, in present-day Michigan. The British soldiers stood on the top of the palisaded walls and watched the game of baaga'adowe (the Anishnaabe name, meaning "bump hips") with intensity. The Native women stood by the walls of the fort with weapons concealed beneath their blankets. At one point in the game, the ball was thrown close to the wall and all the men rushed to get it; the women handed them their weapons and they stormed the walls of the fort.
In the early 1800's the sport gained popularity among Canadian settlers, and teams and leagues were set up across the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Iroquois players made trips to England, Ireland and Scotland playing exhibition games, and by July 1, 1859, Dominion Day in Canada, the Queen of England declared lacrosse the official sport of Canada.
Just a few years later, the sport would take a dramatic turn, when a Montreal dentist and lacrosse enthusiast, Dr. George Beers, began to develop the rules and guidelines needed in order to make lacrosse a "gentleman's sport," thereby increasing its popularity. It was 1867 when Beers codified the sport, reducing the length of the games to four fifteen-minute quarters and the number of players to twelve. This same year, the first game was played using Beers' rules with Upper Canada College losing to the Toronto Cricket Club. Lacrosse began to spread to preparatory schools, colleges and universities, and in 1877 the first collegiate game was played in the United States when Manhattan College played NYU. Since the turn of the twentieth century, lacrosse has become synonymous with affluent schools and colleges in the east, so far from the "Medicine Game" of the first players, so far from "The Creator's Game."
Lacrosse would make it to the Olympics five times altogether. In the 1904 St. Louis games, three teams competed — two from Canada, one of which was entirely made up of Mohawks, and one team from the United States. The Winnipeg Shamrocks took gold, The St. Louis Amateur Athletic Association took silver and The Mohawk Indians would take the bronze medal. Lacrosse was contested in the 1908 London Olympics, as well, but only two teams played; Canada won the gold and Great Britain took Silver. In the years, 1928, 1932, and 1948 lacrosse was played only as a demonstration sport.
For many years after the 1904 Olympics, the roster from the Mohawk lacrosse team was lost. When a copy of the roster surfaced in some collection of memorabilia, the following names appeared:
Black Hawk Lightfoot
Black Eagle Snake Eater
Almighty Voice Red Jacket
Flat Iron Night Hawk
Spotted Tail Man Afraid Soap
Half Moon Rain in Face
These names are ridiculous compared to true Haudenosaunee names. Only Red Jacket was the name of an earlier Seneca leader, but even then, it was the name that white men called him. The true Red Jacket's name was Sagoyewatha (One Who Wakes Them Up). White settlers had a cruel habit of giving Native people insulting or ridiculous family names — Yellow Hair, Bucktooth, etc. I wish I knew the true names of these Native lacrosse heroes. They were likely names such as, Thayendanegea, Sosakete, Akwiratekhe, or Ioherote — names they knew would never be pronounced or respected by their white peers. I would like to believe that they sat around a table one night before the Olympics and thought up these names, and laughed as Indian people love to do. I envision men roaring with belly-laughter and pointing with their lips while coming up with names for one another — "You! You're Man Afraid Soap!" Indian people are gifted at giving names. Go to any reservation and ask for someone by the name on their birth certificate; you'll likely get, "Who? Oh, you mean Mousey!" or "That's his real name? You mean Chub?"
Before moving to New Mexico to teach at The Institute of American Indian Arts, I was teaching at a predominantly white university in rural New York State. On the wall behind my desk hung one of the lacrosse sticks handed down in my family. It is hand carved and well oiled from all the hands that have held it; the deer sinew netting is stretched and old. It hung there above my Iroquois flag, and occasionally a student would walk by and upon seeing it, ask, "Did you go to a prep school or something?" I would proudly take it down and give them a quick lesson, showing them the craftsmanship of yesteryear versus the plastic and nylon of today. Now the stick and the flag hang in my new office, and the students don't question its relevance. A few of the Haudenosaunee students simply ask if they can hold it in their hands. There is a grassy circle in the centre of our campus and all the buildings are laid out in-line with the four directions of the compass and the solstice lines. If you come to campus on a late afternoon in the fall or spring, you are likely to see a pole raised in the centre and loudly cheering students with sticks in both hands playing Cherokee stickball or da-nah-wah'uwsdi.
This evening, as I sit in my log hogan in the high desert, writing this, I watch the fierce hummingbirds competing for the last of the sugar water. To the Haudenosaunee, the raon raon are symbols of the game of tewaaráton. When the hummingbird's tail fans out in attack, it mimics the scoop of the lacrosse stick, and he has the speed and agility of a good lacrosse player, as well as the fierce competitiveness. Thankful for these evening visitors keeping my heart and mind focused on The Creator's Game.
“BLOODLESS DUELING with wax bullets” made only one appearance at the Olympics: the 1908 games that moved from Rome to London after an eruption at Mt. Vesuvius. According to Popular Science magazine, “great interest was taken in the bloodless dueling tournament,” but it’s not difficult to imagine why Olympic officials might remove an event in which people, representing nations, shoot live ammo at one another, even if the bullets are made of wax and the participants are wearing an excessive amount of protective gear.
The Pittsburgh Press ran a preview of the event on April 19, 1908, in which they explained that the Olympic duels would be “fought exactly in every detail as though they were private affairs of honor.” In other words, they were “just like” the duels we’re used to seeing in the movies: back-to-back shooters with revolvers raised, pacing their steps, turning, etc. Real duels have become such a cinematic joke that it’s hard to imagine just how real they once were — and how prevalent. This piece from PBS has a great run-down of the history of dueling in America and makes it clear just how common these things once were, especially among the privileged classes. Everyone knows about Aaron Burr killing Alexander Hamilton, but the distinguished duelers list is much longer than that. At least one other signatory of the Declaration of Independence was killed in a duel, plus a Commodore in the U.S. Navy; Abraham Lincoln, before he became President, narrowly avoided a duel with swords with an Illinois politician.
How it worked was someone said something libelous about you, or transgressed you in another way. First you demanded an apology, then the challenged person could either beg pardon, or submit to a duel. The philosophy behind it was that, again according to PBS, God would intervene and make the “right man” the victor. (Why God didn’t intervene earlier by just striking the “wrong man” with lightning is another question.) PBS goes on to explain that “due to the partisan nature of their work, politicians frequently received challenges—as did newspaper editors and attorneys.” And when they put it that way, I can suddenly see the advantages to a system of honor in which one’s word is equated in value to his or her life. (Comment boards would certainly be shorter, and Fox News would have to make room for an armory, if they don’t already have one.)
Because this is part of a series in which poets are exploring the connections between their craft and various Olympic sports, I can’t help but wonder: is this the way we should be writing poetry? As if our lives depended on it? As if God will strike us down if we are not absolutely pure in thought?
Short answer: No. Here’s the long answer:
Personally, I think poetry has much more in common with bloodless dueling than it does with real dueling. And I say that because if the duel is between the self who writes and the self who lives, the former doesn’t have a very good track record. Writing poetry didn’t save Sexton from her illness, didn’t save Crane from jumping into the sea, didn’t save O’Hara from the dune buggy, didn’t save Rimbaud or Plath or Lowell. If saving one’s life through writing is possible, one of these poets would have managed it. And if it’s not possible, then we shouldn’t be talking about writing as a life-or-death enterprise.
Nor should we be invoking metaphors of violence into our poetics. Hemingway’s advice to “sit down at the typewriter and bleed” always seemed ridiculous to me. Can you imagine a poet like Celan, who saw as many horrors as anyone, using a violent metaphor like that in order to spur on the writing process? Would he need any prompting whatsoever to access his own emotions? The mistake that a lot of writers make, when hearing that advice, or other phrases like “kill your darlings,” is a lot like showing up to a bloodless duel and trying to put real bullets in the chamber. You’re attempting something that isn’t possible.
In poetry only wax bullets exist, because no emotion in a poem is a real one. It’s always a simulation, an artifice, an act. Whenever poets try to suggest otherwise, I always think of the scene in Monty Python & the Holy Grail when the knights come across the last words, carved into a rock, of Joseph of Aramethea: “He who is valiant and pure of spirit...may find the Holy Grail...in the Castle of Aaargh.” A debate then ensues as to whether the Caste of Aaargh is a real place, or if, as one knight suggests, Joseph perhaps scrawled out his final cry of despair in the midst of dying.
“If he was dying,” King Arthur replies, “he wouldn’t bother to carve, “Aargh!” He’d just say it.”
Likewise, no poem cries, “Aargh!” No one interrupts her first kiss to transcribe the moment into blank verse (though that would be kind of sexy), and any poet who scribbles notes at his father’s funeral is not a poet, he’s an asshole. Even when Bishop says “(Write it!)” in “One Art” she’s only enacting the process itself. Poetry is not transcription of life; it’s translation. This, to me, is where the frustration some poets have with “uncreative writing” stems from. When the poet Kenneth Goldsmith records everything he says, prints it, and titles it Soliquoy (2001), some cry, “Foul!” or “Lazy!” What they’re really saying is, Where are the wax bullets? Where is the artifice that makes emotion in the reader possible? (I’d argue the artifice is still there, but that’s a different essay.)
In part, the thirst for actual blood in poems is an error of criticism, constantly repeated, that writers then ingest and regurgitate in bad poems and prose about poems. How many essays on a poet who committed suicide have you read that seem almost morbidly giddy about their biographical coup de grâce? The tragic end to a life seems to provide critics with an unearned confidence, coupled with a laziness of argument. Either the poet’s death purifies the writing, in that I mean it indicates some greater depth of feeling than that possessed by poets who have not taken their own lives, or it doesn’t and is merely trivia. What these essays do is place two unrelated things — the death & the work — side by side, and count on the reader’s imagination doing the rest. (For the record, I’d be very interested in an essay that argued that, for example, the suicide of Frank Stanford is demonstrable proof of his literary greatness. That would be interesting. I’ve only ever read essays that suggested that notion in the passive-aggressive manner just described.)
It’s easy to read Plath or Sexton or Crane and think the suicide itself had a hand in writing the poems. It didn’t. The tragic death is only the end, not the endgame; it doesn’t lead necessarily from the life. For some reason, this is clearer for critics of fiction writers than it is for critics of poets. No one seems to be reading The Pale King as David Foster Wallace’s suicide note; it’s merely the manuscript he was working on when he lost his battle with depression. Lots of writers struggle with mental illness but are lucky enough to come through it. Being unlucky doesn’t make one a better writer, nor being lucky a worse one. This seems reasonable enough; not many poets would admit to romanticizing mental illness or violence, but personally I hear a subtle yearning for it in a lot of contemporary poems (and, as afore mentioned, in essays about poets). Some poems sound as if there’s some crucial footnote or keystone missing; they read as if beginning from some tragic ending that isn’t present.
When we write bad poems, we often set up a dramatic event, some kind of opposition, and then we try to suggest that the danger is real, when the revolver is, of course, empty. You either put wax bullets in, or you don’t. Or you make a necklace out of real bullets and hope we’ll believe there’s a chance of them spontaneously combusting in our faces. Or you throw a bunch of bullets into the air and cut the poem off before they can fall. Or…and so on.
All these kinds of poems are ignoring two opposing, and seemingly oppositional, facts: (1) that poems are indeed connected to actual lives; and (2) that poems are lifeless. I don’t blame us for making this mistake, and most of us do make that mistake over and over, in both our reading and our writing lives. And how can you blame us? When reading a great poem, we can’t see that the bullets are made of wax. They’re moving too fast. And we feel the danger as if it were real.
RAMADAN, THE ISLAMIC month of fasting, began this year on July 20th, 2012. One week later, the opening ceremonies of the Olympics took place.
Perhaps it isn’t so strange that the Olympics are taking place during Ramadan. After all, don’t both the Olympics and Ramadan occur within the body? Don’t both test the body of its ability to endure, sustain, to be disciplined?
What can a stripped art reveal?
— Gregory Orr, “Some Part of the Lyric”
We wake before dawn to eat something to sustain us throughout the day. We take the last sip of coffee, the last bite of a bagel or a bowl of cereal or a plateful of eggs. We return to our beds to sleep a few more hours or we stay up to watch the day unveil itself from night. We know the day will bring a hunger we don’t yet feel.
On August 2nd, I watch Gabby Douglas ease herself with her palms onto the balance beam during the All Around Women’s Finals. She is taut with hours and days and months of self-discipline, of training her body so it does not and cannot fall off that narrow width of suede-covered wood. I’m struck again by the way extreme control lends itself to such grace, such elegance.
We grow accustomed to hunger. We allow it to shudder through us, to guide us past the urge for a glass of water, a bite of our friend or co-worker’s sandwich. We are astounded by what we can accomplish despite our hunger. At times, we are astounded by what we can accomplish because of it.
Elegance, or better yet, shapeliness, as Rick Barot puts it in a recent issue of The Lantern Review: “By form I don’t necessarily mean traditional forms like sonnets and sestinas … I mean a shapeliness …”
Shapely: Douglas poised on that balance beam, bracing herself before the first leap. Shapely: the lyric: a pause in a moment in time. On one side of the lyric is bracing for the leap, and on the other side of it is landing from it. The lyric itself: suspension: not moving, held.
From the same performance comes one of the most remarkable photos of this year’s Olympics: Douglas caught in mid-air high above the beam, her head back, arms and legs spread, toes beautifully pointed.
The power of an image [. . .] derives largely from its own essential paradox — a ‘picture in words’ articulates a nondiscursive apperception through the discursive systems of language — which reflects the paradox of human consciousness: the fact that mind IS body [. . .] the most effective images, then, may be those in which the two opposing poles, the two ends of that mind/body spectrum, are collapsed in on themselves.
— Ellen Bryant Voigt, The Flexible Lyric
We learn that hunger can flood our minds and our bodies. We learn that we can empty our minds and our bodies of the same hunger. We learn that hunger can be both contained within us and surround us.
Later that day, after Douglas has leapt lithely off the beam into a beautifully sharp dismount and into a gold medal, I read this wonderful little prose poem by Mark Strand:
A man and a woman lay in bed. “Just one more time,” said the man, “Just one more time.” “Why do you keep saying that?” said the woman. “Because I never want it to end,” said the man. “What don’t you want to end?” said the woman. “This,” said the man, “this never wanting it to end.”
We learn there is a point in the day in which we feel we have always been hungry and will always be hungry. For hours, it seems, we remain there, suspended between hunger and hunger.
In his essay, “To Think of Time,” David Baker writes, “We fantasize about time stopped, time eliminated; we sing about the inexorable turned as if by magic into the contingent.”
In that picture, Gabby Douglas is captured eternally suspended over the beam, eyes closed. And yet we know that this is a body in movement, on its way elsewhere. How stunning that the lyric has the ability to render this paradox. That even after she has already dismounted, run to her coach, even after she has bent down towards the gold medal that will be draped around her neck, she will remain fixed, perpetually in flight. Even after she slips off the same beam across which she soared a few days later.
For each ecstatic instant/we must an anguish pay
— Emily Dickinson
Once, I was a young Muslim girl flushed with summer who stood on a narrow curb, one leg lifted out in front of her. She instinctively lifted her arms up to keep her balance, tried to keep her body busy so it wouldn’t feel its own hunger. Inside, her mother is cooking up a storm, not letting herself taste for seasoning. Soon, the sun will descend, and her father will pass around a plate of dates, with which they will break their fasts. For now, she points her toe towards the ground, then lifts her leg back up. She will hold that pose as long as she can. Then she will place both feet firmly on the narrow width of concrete. She knows she must do so before she leaps.
ROGER GUISEPPI was one of the best players we had ever seen. He was one year below me in high school, and almost from the first day he showed up, he seemed possessed with otherworldly ball control. He could dribble past anyone at anytime, almost effortlessly it seemed. He could tell you he was about to put it on you — and there was nothing you could do to stop it. Gip (that’s what we called him) had a signature dribble. We called it a sex. To us it was the greatest ignominy to bestow upon an opposing player — to slip the ball through his legs. It was the ultimate embarrassment. Wherever we were, if you could sex your defender, the field, the courtyard, the balcony over looking the gym, the fellas standing on the corner, all went ohhhhh!! And momentarily the game would take second place to the shit-talk that accompanied the move.
I grew up in the twin-island republic of Trinidad and Tobago. To date, we are the smallest nation to have qualified for the World Cup. With a population of 1.3 million, it seems miraculous that we’ve accomplished what we have. We’ve had an Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meters (Hasely Crawford 1976). We’ve had two Miss Universes. We’ve been part of the most dominant cricket team of all time. But Trinidadians are obsessed with soccer. We are obsessed with the beautiful game and obsessed with making it look beautiful at all times. Many of the teams we’ve produced have outplayed their opponent and lost 1-0; including the heartbreaking loss to the United States in 1989, when all we needed was a draw to make it to the World Cup in Italy in 1990. We lost that game 1-0, in Trinidad. The next year, an attempted coup dominated the headlines for many months. It is impossible to decide whether or not they’re connected.
But in the sixties, seventies and eighties, most Trinidadians watched and worshipped Brazil’s football. We were obsessed with the rhythm of that game, the unmistakably black and brown improvisations of dance and precision that transformed Britain’s invention and made Brazil the game’s pre-eminent world power. When Brazil played, the streets were empty. We mimicked the languor of Socrates, wanted to wear the #10 like Pele, tried to re-create that ridiculous on-the-run lightning strike 40-yard goal like Josimar, and the sublime outside left of Eder. What we wanted, more than victory itself was beauty — nothing more, nothing less. We could lose a match and talk all night about the sweet turn and no-look pass delivered on the money, earlier that evening. I once turned so sharply that the defender running behind me tripped over his own legs, breaking his fibula. It was all we talked about for years. But Gip, he was our patron saint of smooth. He’d go into important playoff matches telling opposing players what he was going to do, and then do it promptly in the next motion. We passed bills back and forth casting bets as to how many fellas Gip would sex that evening. Myself, Cyril, Bing, Rudy and Barrington were often co-conspirators in this, and so one day after a match we thought we’d ask Gip how it was he managed to sex defenders whenever he felt like it.
I count footsteps, said Gip. What? We weren’t understanding. I count footsteps. When you collect the ball, you know where your closest defender is and about how many strides he will take to get there. When you hear the last two footsteps, that quick one-two, you know his legs are open. No one runs and then stops suddenly with his legs closed. It was a revelation, a body intelligence that could only be gleaned by playing over and over again, by playing even when you were called in from the street, by playing because there were no other options, no other motivating drives. I count footsteps, Gip said, his body building an intelligence so as to make something sublime out of movement and motive, and it has remained with me for over 25 years. It is a story I often recount when facilitating creative writing workshops. I like to think of it as analogous to writing’s, being a listening, for one’s own voice. There are these ‘rules’ or guidelines I can give you, I tell them that will provide some sort of foundational blueprint, but ultimately, there is an expression that’s completely yours. Voice is, what voice sounds like, ‘how you talk’, and so to find out how the elements of how you talk come together to make the most effective expression, you have to listen for, and count, footsteps. Be aware of the brilliance of your personal colloquy. Find that and your poems will begin to manifest on the page what it is you’re feeling in the body, line breaks and all.
In these Olympics, Brazil and Mexico have made it to the finals of the men’s game. For soccer fans, Olympics takes a distant fifth place to the World Cup, The European Cup, The Premier League, Italy’s Serie A and Spain’s La Liga. So, okay, sixth. But the Olympics restricts nations to having their entire squad, but for three players, be under the age of 23, so it tells you something important about the future squads of the countries that make it there and even those that don’t. Mexico was lucky to get past Senegal in the quarterfinals. Senegal’s football was improbably beautiful. For long stretches of the game, they dominated the play, and it was only having run out of substitutes and because of two massive mistakes in overtime, that they eventually lost 4-2 to Mexico, a perennial world contender. The Senegalese game was inexorably African — fast, powerful, silky smooth. The Brazilians had to get past Honduras, which shocked Spain in group play and Sth. Korea, which earlier had shocked Britain in the quarters.
Four nations of color made up the semi-final group, and it says something special for the ways in which the game — already the world’s largest and most popular — is growing. When I was child, only two African nations had spaces in the world cup, always some combination of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, or Egypt. With more places in the Cup now, we’ve seen beautiful football in the last three Cups from Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, South Africa, Cameroun, Ivory Coast, Togo. An African nation has twice made it as far as the World Cup quarterfinals, and in some ways, we have to concede that they’re all following Brazil, the largest African nation of all. Who else was there for us to mimic in the seventies and eighties. Junior, Serginho, Rivelino et al. The smaller, poorer countries are showing out. They’re finding the places where the game’s fundaments meet the peculiarity of their own histories and expression. They’re beginning to win at the beautiful game by re-imagining what beautiful looks like, and how it manifests in their bodies in their brand of football. I like to think they all saw and marveled at Gip’s complex arithmetic. They’re figuring out the next level. They’re counting footsteps.
RUNNERS LEAN FORWARD at the arced start of the 1500 meters. The gun blasts, and they are off. Their first moments are focused on negotiating space and place. While it is metaphysically true that “you only race yourself,” the loud footfalls on the track and the uniformed bodies sharing air and heat argue otherwise.
Racers have much to consider: pace, posture, breathing, negotiating turns, striding down straightaways, riding or fighting wind, elbowing out of boxed bunches, running through the end. The mind tries to control the legs, but knees and ankles have their own thoughts. The body wobbles. Old injuries return like memories. Self-doubt lives on the track.
The mile has an accepted length and route, so the impulse might be to compare it with the sonnet or villanelle, forms of boxes themselves. Even the sestina, with its end refrains, feels appropriate. Yet any poem, free or formal, exists within a calibrated structure. Each poem teaches us how it should be read; each poem carves its own aesthetic moment. Runners might strive for records or personal bests, but all that matters is the world of the race. The same goes for the creative arts. Regardless of any anxiety of influence, it is the poet versus the poem, and time only matters within the confines of the reading experience, not the composition. It might take a year to craft a poem that takes a minute to read, though we can feel the hours, the training, as we hurdle the lines.
Yet “mile” is often an incorrect, colloquial term in track, as poems often push against their borders. The Olympics 1500 meters is 3 ¾ laps around the track. American high-schoolers run the 1600 meters. Neither is an exact mile, but the term is convenient. We think in miles, we drive across miles, we recall black-and-white stills of Roger Bannister, that medical student of mind and body, breaking four minutes in the mile. Bannister, reflecting on the race, said he felt a “unity with nature” during those moments, a freedom from his physical form. His words reflect the later theories of George Leonard, whose 1975 book The Ultimate Athlete both benefited from, and contributed toward, the resurgence of running as a fitness activity. Leonard finds most sports to be “complicated excuses for running.” Timing and racing are not as essential as “the stern demands of distance, which cannot be charmed, cajoled, cheated, or mocked.” He reminds us that all running is falling: “we rise from the earth and return.”
My older brothers, both athletes with predispositions toward philosophy, filled the margins of their copy with notes. I drifted from their markings to Leonard’s words, eager to understand why my 800-meter races felt like tests of the soul more than events of the body.
Leonard is accurate when he writes that the “voice of pain” is at first “a whisper,” reminding us of the “limits of what is comfortable.” That voice rises, attempting to both charm and trick us into stopping. Most runners have heard these words: “Why today? This isn’t a good day for pushing yourself. Save yourself today and you’ll make very good time tomorrow. It’s all right. Really it is.” The runner must fight against the voice; he or she must, like Bannister, reach another plane: “the runner is not going to die, but death is present.” This is the runner’s high, and any “day without such interplay is incomplete.” That the runner has free will to stop at any moment makes the danger more beautiful and owned.
My college coach would tell us to do LSD. Long, slow distance, although the experience might be analogous to lysergic acid diethylamide. We ran in the heat across central Pennsylvania farmland, the stink of manure numbing our nostrils, cows staring at us. When I reached the top of steep hills, it felt like sun churned across the asphalt. Some days I wanted to duck into the abandoned brick homes that stood feet from the road and sleep on the shadowed floors. But I kept going, and though I felt empty and strained at the end, I always finished. Faith in my feet was always rewarded.
Running is an opportunity for renewal, and sometimes resurrection. Haruki Murakami traded owning a jazz club for novel writing. Along the way, he also became a runner, and found connections between both pursuits. Murakami goes for distance over speed, both in terms of running and words. Fiction, with its arc of narrative, complexities of character, plots and subplots, and the possibility of extended description, feels made for analogy with distance running.
Could the same be said of poetry, with its tendency toward compression and association? There is certainly a poetics of running, in a conceptual sense. The lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins feel alternatively aerobic and anerobic: “The Windhover” reads like a hill workout. Poetic scansion is an interval workout. Meters on the page move fast and slow, with the mouth and the mind the only true judge.
Field events are suffused with poetics. My sister-in-law throws javelin for Lehigh University, and she speaks of a more collegial, team approach than the often individual lanes of track. Lifting — squats, power cleans, hang cleans, shoulder and incline presses, bench, pull ups — constitutes the majority of their training. Their bodies are focused on centralized action: the goal is to extend the self through object. Their javelin will reach further and faster than any body in the same amount of time. The paradox of controlled movement in javelin — a rehearsed approach, the pull, the release — is that you cede power at that moment to the pole wailing through air. The poetics of javelin, of most field events, is the complexity of the body’s attempt to control material outside its self.
The struggle of running is perfect fodder for poetry. Runners are nearly bare on a stage, going round and round for our entertainment. Walt Whitman’s “The Runner,” at a spare four lines, feels like a mile on the page. The lack of a name for the subject makes the runner equal running. He is the sport. He runs on “a flat road.” His body, “lean and sinewy,” is still muscular. As if to further become one with the sport, he “is thinly clothed.” He “leans forward as he runs,” angling toward goals imagined and real.
Whitman’s brief poem feels as if it ends mid-description, with the runner’s “lightly closed fists and arms partially raised,” noticed before he passes from view. The track affords us a way to contain such forward motion in the repetition of space, but road and trail running is unbound. We might still call such routes “courses,” but the freedom is there. In William J. Vernon’s “Out on the Course,” road running “drew me outside / myself” for the narrator. He runs “hills, fields and /woodlands, hearing both crow caw and / cow low.” Each step becomes a pioneering action, a grabbing of land. The world looks new to him: he is “surprised” at trees, creeks, slopes. He feels “the impression / of seeds” beneath his footfalls, and the sensation displaces time: he knows this is “where corn and wheat had spun / out of combine or picker or loose-boarded / trucks.” The runner pauses at one water stop during the race, and tried to make a joke but his “mouth had stumbled” as the words “tripped over / themselves.” His body is nearly in the midst of metamorphosis.
These metamorphoses are often connected with age. In Richard Wilbur’s sequential poem, “Running,” the narrator begins in 1933, playing a game that involved chasing. The boys “leapt out . . . took two hard lopes,” moving all along “with delighted strain”: “Thinking of happiness, I think of that.” Later, he watches a marathon pass, their bodies “dark in the glare” as “they seemed to thresh in place.” When he runs again, he feels “part of that great going” of the natural world, and he wonders what “is the thing which men will not surrender.” Wilbur’s poem is partially a lament: how the memories of sport are drenched in sadness, something “missed it in its true season.” The same nostalgia that inhabits Wilbur’s poem makes Ron Rash turn toward high school in “Running the Mile Relay,” where the vocational students, “learning nothing / that would save us / from trailer parks and mill work” and war, “ran against time,” pining “for stolen seconds.” The boys realize “this running in circles meant / more than anything coming” later in their lives. Running bends time.
In “A Jogging Injury,” by Fleda Brown Jackson, the narrator’s propped foot “[beats] its shadow-heart / in time with the gods who stopped / my run midstride.” Although as a teenager she “would have cried / at my foot’s carnage,” now she is “riddled with breaks” at middle-age. Jackson’s melancholy is palpably heartfelt. The years “have softened my bones to vague aches,” and now her “original dreams” are “like dried flowers / too tender for touch.” Jackson’s narrator, though now more realistic, still envelopes her feelings in metaphor: her injury was the resulting of hitting an “innocent” rock, and her pain “is the rock’s gift.”
Bill Meissner’s “Death of the Track Star” is equally sad. His “back toward the high school track,” a man remembers the “choirs of wheezing / a chestful of cinders.” The man “almost believes” for an instant that “he has lived the best possible life.” He thinks of glory, how “applause . . . surrounds each muscle.” The poem’s final image — his legs softening “into two blue silk ribbons / rippling in the breeze” reveal a loosening of form, and as he “suddenly inhales / all the breaths / he has ever exhaled in his life,” his motion appears toward death. A.E. Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young” is the essential poem linking these concepts. Housman’s elegiac second-person is chilling. The runner, brought home “shoulder high” after victory, is now brought by a “stiller town” to his resting place. That Housman accomplishes such a grave contrast in two stanzas is powerful, and the poem was appropriate for sportscaster Jim McKay to excerpt following the murders of Israeli Olympians during the 1972 Munich Games.
Yet running is not all about finishes and faults. There is a joy in such motion, in the recognition of our potential for speed. My wife has trained hard even past her years running for high school and college teams, and she looks at peace while gliding down the trail. We talk afterwards, and though I’m sucking down as much air as possible, she never seems to get tired. Though she will try to explain this to me, there is a world within her running that I will never understand, an athletic mystery.
And the poetic absurdity of sustained repetition creates levity in tense moments. Rain started moments before a 400-meter heat on the first day of Track & Field in the London Games. The crowd rushed from their seats, but on the track, American sprinter DeeDee Trotter accepted the drops. She nodded her head, welcoming the water, before finishing first in her heat. It was a moment of recognition: she will not be annoyed, she will not be stopped.
Olympians have clear goals, but most people run for other reasons. The oval track is a reminder that we are all running in place, no matter the distance covered. Despite all the mental and physical drain, even the fastest runner ends up back at the starting line. The track never unfolds toward eternity. We are permanently contained, and yet all seems possible in the space between seconds. George Leonard is correct that what “we run for we shall never reach, and that is the heart and glory of it.” The best poetry is equally unreachable, and that makes both pursuits worth our effort.