Image: "Alternate Olympics 2012 Logo"
“This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would […]”
Danny Boyle’s artificial rain cloud has given the rest of the troposphere an idea or two, and our late-arriving British summer is being edged aside by short showers which drum down on the Copper Box, a matchbox-shaped red-brown building on the south edge of the Olympic Park. As poet and Trappist monk Thomas Merton knew, the rain is a rumormonger, “all the speech pouring down.” We’ve experienced enough Wimbledons on this island to know “it will talk as long as it wants, this rain.” We’re used to listening.
Right now, this rain is talking about events inside the Copper Box, where Iceland’s men’s Handball team (silver medallists in Beijing) has just scored against Argentina. It’s one of those spectacular, made-for-replay Olympic moments where, without warning, something extraordinary happens. #18, Robert Gunnarsson darts into the inner D, the area patrolled by the goalkeeper. A team-mate’s wayward lobbed pass drifts beyond the heads of two Argentine defenders, bobbles awkwardly. Diving forward, at full stretch, headed away from the goal, level to the floor, Gunnarsson grasps the ball and flings it behind him, back over his shoulder, past the helpless, unsighted ’keeper, into the bottom corner of the net. No one saw it coming, least of all the Argentinians, and that’s why the rain’s telling it to the rooftops. Game on.
I’m certain John Keats would have been an Olympian, if only Dr. William Penny Brookes or Pierre de Coubertin had been around during his short lifetime to institute the “Olympian Games” or found the International Olympic Committee. I’d like to think Keats would have played handball: boxing, cricket, and fencing were his sports, but surely only because handball didn’t exist in organised form in his day (the first written rules date to 1906). Like the sports he played, handball relies on getting your hand to do something your mind can scarcely visualise — a flick of the wrist, a twist of the thumb, an adjustment of the fingers and a goal’s been scored, or stopped, a pass made or the crescendo of a forward move halted.
In the fragmentary “This Living Hand,” one of Keats’ last poems, he imagines his hand, “cold / and in the icy silence of the tomb,” haunting the poem’s recipient. In a chilling, necromantic bargain, Keats hopes to terrify whoever reads the poem so much that they’ll wish to swap places,
wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d
Keats’ threat — or promise — has a seductive rhythm. After the staccato pumping of blood in the horror movie-like couplet preceding it, “conscience-calm’d” is soothingly measured, a lull that tells us how nice it would be to be still, to pause awhile, to step out.
In such lulls, unwary handball players are caught napping, concede goals. In poetry and handball both, it’s all about the change of pace. Settle your reader into a rhythm then shift the tempo. Slow down the game then break away. Disruption makes visible the presence of fluent continuity — it’s an end in itself, punctuation; about-face, the line-break by which the game changes from pumped blood to calm conscience. On the sidelines, the Icelandic fans (they’re mostly Icelandic, today; behind swimming, handbolti is something approaching a national sport) chant Ísland, Ísland, Ísland. Unlike at a football match, or a baseball game, the fans create the rhythm, as much a part of the game’s sequence as the players themselves, the way the listening reader’s experience of the poem is through the sonic as much as the sense. Robert Grenier was fascinated by Keats’ “hedge-crickets sing,” a phrase tantamount to the “frequency of vibration in crickets”—as though walking past a field invisible with grasshoppers at dusk we’re stumbling onto a meeting of the Keats Society. If you’re listening closely to the rhythm, you barely need to know the terminology.
The rhythm of handball is strategic, a weapon that uses both intelligence and muscles to tempt opponents into making the wrong move. At times, the game is played at a slow stroll, six players approaching the defenders’ D, leisurely tossing the ball to and fro, baiting the spectators’ breath as they wait for an opening. They wait patiently for a way through the semicircle of opponents to where the goalkeeper stands, taking up as much of the goal’s frame as possible. On a dime the pace has changed and you weren’t ready, snapped into gear, the attacker’s charged for a gap, wheeled, darted forward again, blocked, popped the ball back out to a team-mate who feints a flung pass then ducks towards the net and collides with a defender who is as yielding as a portcullis. Handball is a contact sport: getting your body between the player with the ball and the goal is a sine qua non, though challenges from the side or behind are frowned upon. Skill matters, agility helps, an eye for angles can open up the court, but if you can’t get the switch of the rhythm, you’ll never make it on the court.
What it all builds up to, all this start-and-change, chop-and-swivel, is the hand, a single limb carrying the whole endeavor. From fast breaks to the antagonistic couplet that is the penalty throw — two players pitted together, attacker versus goalkeeper — handball relies on the manipulation of the ball, on guiding a small, transportable object towards the target. Blink and you’ll miss the fakes, thinking the ball’s left someone’s fingers headed cross-field only to find, as your eyes track it, it’s gone, it’s invisible, it’s still at the fingertips of the winger who’s just smuggled it beneath another opponent’s elbow, an impossible glimpse of a pass threaded into the dangerzone. A really elegant attack is the work of several hands, their bodies almost incidental to events, but it all, finally, comes down to a single hand sleighting the ’keeper.
That’s true, too, of Keats’ poem. “This Living Hand” persists, dwells deep in the imagination, because it animates the writer’s hand on the page (without having to resort to Frankenstein-like experiments or zombification). The phrase “This living hand, now warm and capable / Of earnest grasping,” describes the writer’s hand at the moment of penning the poem but it also describes the poem itself, which substitutes for the now-departed writer. By the time the poem ends, we don’t just have a substitute: we have the hand itself—“see, here it is—/ I hold it towards you—” No more words needed, except ours as we try to ward off these apparent fingers which might prove a feint (I can see a handball in that grasping hand: Keats really should have played handball.)
If any ars poetica could cover the diverse array of activities that fit within the Pandora’s box of poetry, I’d wager Keats’ poem is it. Poems attempt to give bodily presence to the experiences they recount. They seek to let their described events enter the animate world, to turn the surrogate of the page or audio recording into a “living hand.” This was what Charles Olson (a football goalkeeper in his time) was trying to achieve with his “projective breath” back in 1950: he wanted a poetry written by going “down through the workings of [your] own throat to that place where breath comes from”; from deep within, the poem would transfer energy “all the way over to, the reader.” It’s the disruptive comma in Olson’s phrase that reminds us this is easier said than done, of course—the way a handball pass, too telegraphed, will get intercepted.
Poets have long seen the “earnest grasping” of poetry as an attempt to animate — to give life to, by giving breath to — what is ultimately a technology of the hand, whether you’re typing, tweeting, or using a feather quill. For Lorca, writing poetry was “holding a fire in your hand”; Ann Lauterbach has talked of poetry in terms of “the figure of a mobile, moving in time and space, its components shifting in perspective and animated by potential contingencies.” Poetry does not confirm or conform; it’s an art in which regularity and formal convention are there so we can notice the deviations, derivations.
Many of the poets I know are also athletes, can be found in the boxing ring, on the surfboard, kicking a football, scrimmaging. Poetry happens with the body, which is what, I think, draws poets to sport; it’s not for nothing that the Romantic poets composed while walking. (I don’t know of any Olympic athletes who write poems: are they animate enough already?) Denise Levertov once talked about poetry as “a handcraft your hand learns,” an “intuition” that was rooted in the muscles. Writing, like sport, has a muscle memory — and that means sometimes we have to unlearn bad habits, faulty techniques. Yet it’s such intuition that leads to moments like Gunnarsson’s goal: the body doing something the mind is only partly involved in. I wouldn’t call it automatic, for such actions are rarely reflex — though Hreiðar Pall Guðmundsson’s late penalty save has just offered me a great of example of when the body takes over, making a wonderful, unlikely stop the consciousness never saw coming.
Amiri Baraka, who played high school football (the American kind), once imagined a writing machine that would surpass the typewriter: an xpression-scriber, “into which I could step & sit or sprawl or hang & use not only my fingers to make words express feelings but elbows, feet, head, behind, and all the sounds I wanted.” He was looking for a poetry written by the whole body, not just for his own pleasure, but so that “the final xpressed thought/feeling wd not be merely word or sheet, but itself, the xpression, three dimensional — able to be touched, or tasted or felt, or entered, or heard or carried.” Whatever the technology we’re using as poets, from the percussion of the heartbeat to the flash possibilities of the app, we’re always trying to get that leverage, to bring more than a little physicality to the field of the page.
Back in the Copper Box, Iceland have spent the second half comfortably ahead of their opponents. Time and again, they’ve broken through the waiting Argentine defence and gone one-on-one with the Argentine ’keeper. The Icelandic attackers are masters of surprise: launching high into the air, they’ll look like they’re going to power a shot hard into the net only to float the ball in a gentle loop over the already-committed ’keeper between the sticks. Playing catch-up, the Argentinians try route one, driving towards goal and shooting on sight, but there’s no change to their rhythm. It’s too predictable. Guðmundsson in goal easily clasps shot after shot to his chest. The Danish women spent the first half of their game against South Korea running into a similar dead end, their goalward throws lacking any element of mystery — making their one-goal loss, 25-24, even more agonizing. What we need in handball and in poetry is the unexpected. Give up on surprise and the poem’s lost its edge; the move’s failed.
We’re only a few days into the men’s and women’s tournaments, with several dozen games to go before the medals are awarded on the final two days of the Olympics. Already we’ve seen some surprises, especially the French women beating reigning champions Norway by a single goal, 24-23. Britain’s women put up a plucky show against hot-tipped Montenegro, before going down 31-19. Scores and results, though, are lifeless objects compared to the ebb and flow, the turns and turn-abouts of each game. I’d like my handball match reports to be presented as seismographs, electrocardiographs, as a series of troughs and peaks across which I could read the action. I’m not sure if there’s a machine which could manage it, an app for that, but if there is, don’t be surprised to find it’s a poem.
Despite the underwhelming coverage by NBC, there was actually quite a lot of drama in the qualifying round for men’s gymnastics last night. I was obviously so excited to root for an Irish gymnast (as I’m sure you were), but watching longshot Kieran Behan stumble all over his floor routine and then smile the bitter smile of defeat was heartbreaking. My favorite Olympic moment of any sport today came when Louis Smith performed his superb pommel horse routine (ended getting the best score of the day on pommel horse) and then unexpectedly burst into tears. Later on, there was something fascinating about watching John Orozco’s mother hide her face while his father peered eagerly at him through binoculars. They were like a parental set of comedy and tragedy masks. Something strange happened to ‘Superman’ Uchimura last night—what it was, I don’t know, but it seemed to be psychological not physical. The most agonized collapse was Germany’s Philipp Boy. I don’t know if you got to see it; NBC aired it after 12:30 AM ET. Boy hurt himself during a tucked crash landing on vault and later fell off the high bar during an easy release move. When he was getting up off his back, he was fuming and angrily yelled, “Mann!” I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a gymnast shout out loud during competition. Have you?
All of these moments made me think that, despite the fact that many people think of men’s gymnastics as a stoic display of strength moves and acrobatics, the sport is actually deeply bound up in psychology and emotion. Remember when Ryuzo Sejima of Japan kept falling on the rings and high bar at the AT&T Cup we went to this March? It was awful. But the collapse seemed to be mental, not physical; we were watching someone who was unable to connect his will to his own body. Let me just say to television viewers that witnessing that kind of breakdown live in person has a palpable effect on the crowd that television just can’t transmit.
Because I grew up watching you do gymnastics, my connection with the sport has always been personal and visceral. I watched you and your teammates fall off the beam, crash into the vault, and lose the skin off your palms from competing on the uneven bars. I remember bruises and ice packs and bandages everywhere. I can picture mom covering her eyes like Damaris Orozco when you did that release move in your uneven bars routine. Watching gymnastics was as much about confronting fear as it was about witnessing a physical marvel. The wonder of gymnastics is that something beautiful is born out of danger and pain. Through strength and will, the body overcomes danger and pain, and on the other side of that is the exhilarating joy of having passed through that crucible. For me there is some kind of masochistic draw to feel that gut-wrenching intimacy with the gymnast. So I have to be able to connect on a sympathetic level to experience the thrill of the sport. This is why I prefer gymnasts who manifest a more emotional or expressive style over the gymnasts who are focused and steely and flawless or gymnasts who are ciphers.
On the American team, for me, that engaging gymnast is Danell Leyva. Ever since you and I saw him come from behind to win the AT&T Cup at MSG in March with his impossibly brilliant high bar routine, I have been looking forward to seeing what he will do in the Olympics. There’s something dynamic about the way he takes risks and tries to make himself distinct as a male gymnast. I love the fact that his flexibility allows him to be more expressive with his body on floor and that he has a unique move on the high bar. (I hope the ‘Jam Hop’ gets renamed a ‘Leyva’ at some point. I always thought it was very romantic that certain moves were named after the gymnasts who first performed them: Yurchenko, Tsukahara, etc.) I like everything from his boyish fist pumps to his clap-happy stepfather/coach who is giving Bela Karolyi a run for his money in the fierce-but-adorable-daddy-who-speaks-broken-English-and-jumps-around-like-a-child category.
I’m curious what your reaction was to the events in the men’s qualifying rounds and who sparked your interest. And, since you actually were a gymnast, you can tell me if I’m just romanticizing the ideas of pain and danger in gymnastics.
Plus my prediction for the Olympics is: Louis Smith wins Britain’s first gymnastics gold medal ever in individual pommel horse and then cries again and then moves in with me. After he shaves off that goatee.
I confess that my Irish heart got quite sentimental and soggy when I saw Kieran Behan step on to the floor on Saturday in his leprechaun-green athletic gear. (That part was unfortunate.) Not only is he Irish—Kieran!—but he has overcome enormous adversity to be at the Olympics. And like a true Irishman, he has demonstrated Olympian stubbornness. When he was 10, he found a tumor the size of a golf ball on his leg; the doctors botched the surgery and left him with “permanent” nerve damage. But he learned to walk again — and began training, only to suffer a freak accident: brain damage after hitting his head in a routine fall. Hours and hours of rehab. It only went on from there: first the torn ACL in one knee, then the other; a broken arm; financial straits (he ended up sweeping the gym he trained in); and now a rotator cuff injury. Yet there he was, walking out on the floor mat along with all the other Olympians.
So no, I don’t think you’re romanticizing the pain and danger of gymnastics. The tension between masochism and spiritual triumph is absolutely central to this sport. On Saturday, Kieran embodied that, struggling to stick his landings amid pain. Literally embodied it, like so many of the other injured gymnasts who competed last night. There are very few other sports that so fully dramatize that extraordinary exercise of will, which I think we all find beautiful: it’s why we watch the Olympics, isn’t it? To witness dedication, intensity — and of course the shiny leotards and scrunchies help. (Where else does anyone wear scrunchies anymore?) This isn’t what Yeats was referring to when he wrote “a terrible beauty is born,” and yet maybe we’d be forgiven for borrowing those words. Gymnastics — like the original ancient marathon — is dangerous.
And boy, were they falling and bashing and bruising themselves on Saturday, as we watched! When the German Philipp Boy (quite a name, too) injured himself last night on his first event, he had to go on to do floor with a taped-up, aching ankle. (I remember doing this myself: destroying the tendon in my left ankle, taping it up, and going on to tumble the next day. Mom was horrified, just like Mama Orozco, and, probably, Mama Boy.) I suspect this is why viewers love watching gymnastics so much. Everyone can identify with the anxiety, the nerves, the sense of being tested — which is what gymnastics is rather sadistically designed to do. It tests the athlete, in a complex series of ways. Jump high! Jump higher! Now “stick it”! Now flip around this bar! Now let go and catch! Now fall and be forced to get up and keep on fighting! Our classicist father would stop to point out that “Gymnastics” is an ancient Greek word, originally describing the naked wrestling and training for war that Greeks routinely partook in. The Romans adopted the training exercises, adding a wooden horse to the mix. (Hello, Pommel Horse and Vault.) When gymnastics was reintroduced in Europe in the 18th century, it was popular as a set of military training exercises. This is a sport that stretches the body to its limits.
I understand why John Orozco’s mom can’t watch: Modern gymnastics makes you want to hide your eyes AND pick up the binoculars. Since 1970s, the rate of athletic innovation in gymnastics has been stunning. Surely we’re near the end of possibilities. So now the filigrees arrive. Both men’s gymnastics — and women’s (which once was mainly about grace) have become ferociously physical. It’s amazing to think that it was radical for Olga Korbut to do a flip on the uneven parallel bars in 1972. Or that the International Gymnastics Federation had to reinvent the scoring system in 2006, because gymnasts were now routinely getting perfect 10s — considered impossible until 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci pulled it off in 1976.
Enough history lesson; back to the drama at hand. Like you, I love the expressive, dynamic gymnasts, and so Leyva is my favorite of the men. Maybe we’re biased, because we saw him come from behind at the AT&T Cup in NYC this spring, but he’s got it, whatever “it” is. And it doesn’t hurt to have a Dynamic Dad who loves to clap! My favorite American female gymnast is Gabby Douglas, a.k.a. “the Flying Squirrel,” who upset reigning world champion Jordyn Wieber in the Olympic Trials. I wasn’t surprised (and I bet you weren’t) after seeing her performance at the AT&T Cup, where she was the stealth star, even as the alternate.
More drama: The U.S. men’s team hasn’t taken gold since 1984, but I think this year they have a slim shot. Especially after both the Chinese team and the Japanese team fell apart in the qualifying round. (Literally: The Chinese just kept falling and falling and falling off equipment.) Even ‘Superman’ Uchimura had a disastrous day. This could mean that he bounces back to normal form — like someone indulging in his worst fears before going on to dominate.
Either way, I’ll be rooting for the U.S. and Leyva just as I rooted for poor old Kieran. Time to get out the I HEART DANELL LEYVA shirts and make a Cuba Libre. Come on over!
(I’m also rooting for Louis Smith to shave that goatee and visit Brooklyn when the games conclude.)
IN 1984, WHEN I was 10 years old, the summer Olympics took place in my hometown of Los Angeles. Going on my fifth year as an Angeleno, I was already used to most everything being filtered through the lens of celebrity. The logo of those games was titled “Stars in Motion.” Foreigner, Loverboy, and Toto were featured on the official tie-in album. Beloved actor/athlete O.J. Simpson ran the Santa Monica leg of the torch relay.
My parents purchased our first color television set to mark the occasion, and they brought us downtown to cheer on the pre-Olympics parade. From the curb I used my instamatic to snap a photo of someone dressed as Sam the Olympic Eagle, the patriotic mascot of the ‘84 games.
Most hyped of all, it seemed to me (or else the thing I paid the most attention to), was Esther Williams, who was all over the news cycle as the color commentator for synchronized swimming in what was the sport’s first appearance in the Olympic games. Esther Williams had missed her chance to compete as a speed swimmer in the 1944 Olympics because the games were cancelled due to World War II. After the war, she made her name as an MGM contract star in such films as Bathing Beauty and Million Dollar Mermaid. And now she was back at the Olympics — hooray for Hollywood, and to hell with fascism! That was the moment, I think, when synchronized swimming might have earned some respect. It was a brief moment.
It’s impossible to discuss synchronized swimming without first stating the obvious: it’s a woman’s sport. Most national leagues, including U.S.A. Synchro, our major league here in the states, don’t allow men to compete without women also on the team, and the Olympic competitions aren’t open to men at all. The only other Olympic sport that only women compete in is rhythmic gymnastics, which also entered into play in the 1984 Olympics. Neither of these two sports gets a lot of respect or attention. They aren’t the only sports where grace and beauty are scored as part of the challenge. But sports like gymnastics, diving, ice skating, and ice dancing all possess something these two do not: men in competition.
“Think it’s a sissy sport?” asked a headline on synchronized swimming in the magazine Popular Science ahead of the Beijing Olympics four years ago. “Think again.”
This year, there are two athletes competing in the Olympics in synchronized swimming for the United States: duo Mary Killman, a 21-year-old member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and her partner, Russian-born, Stanford-trained, 22-year-old Mariya Koroleva. These elite athletes must train to hold their breath for three minutes. They practice by swimming laps completely underwater. They might swim laps with a weight belt around their waist. While underwater, they practice doing ballet and gymnastics; their movements must be tight and concise, their bodies absurdly flexible. At no point during their routines can their feet touch the bottom of the pool. While underwater, they keep time with the help of special speakers so powerful they are the same as those used in counter terrorism efforts at sea, either to warn swimmers that they have entered enemy territory or to warn enemies they have entered ours. According the U.S. Olympic Committee, for the 2008 games, the synchronized swimming team practiced up to 10 hours a day, more than any other sport. And yet, only trampoline and triathlon will get less airtime than synchronized swimming at the Olympics this year (as per the NBC viewing calendar for my local area). It’s kind of a joke.
“[Synchronized swimming] taught me about perseverance, never giving up,” said Olympian Becky Kim, in an interview in AsianWeek in 2008. “And also about being humble because our sport gets made fun of a lot, but I know who I am in this sport.”
I think I know how she feels. Although the reasons behind the public misperception are somewhat different, I — and perhaps any poet who has ever sheepishly confessed what they do to a cab driver or uncle or coworker — would argue that poetry is like the synchronized swimming of the publishing world. Hear me out.
Many years ago, my now-husband and I were in a copy shop in Manhattan copying our poems to send out into the world. There was another customer doing the same thing. She was disheveled, with an air of flakey anxiety, and she needed quite a bit of assistance from the machine attendant. At one point she noticed that we were also poets and she excitedly invited us to submit to her just-founded literary journal. We watched as the employees and patrons rolled their eyes at her and we were both left with the nagging feeling that the way we all saw this woman — flighty, over-dramatic, carrying at least four canvas tote bags — was the way the world perceived poets. Perceived us.
Of course, we poets sure think poetry is cool, and we know how difficult it is, but I would guess that most people tend to think of poetry as pretty and delicate, a colossal waste of time, the territory of dead Englishmen or withering recluses. Occasionally some ne’er do well or dramatic depressive will stumble along to roughen it up, but therein is a kind of weakness too. And when you watch synchronized swimming, with its silly (but crucial) nose clips, the gruesomely heavy (waterproof) makeup, the horse-derived gelatin (blech) they must use to keep their hair from moving, the cheerful competitors (no game face here), the moves called “flamingo” and “crane” and “scoop,” well, it’s all got that kind of over-the-top, hard to believe quality that we poets possess (and cherish).
Few take poetry or synchronized swimming seriously, except for the people who practice it, and sometimes the people that love them. I suspect that, like synchronized swimming, poetry is the kind of thing that many are sure they can do in a fit of deep feeling or after they’ve had too much to drink at a party. And, sure, we occasionally get our Esther Williams moment, the moment where a bit of celebrity shines its light on to us, allowing us to matter a little more in the public perception. James Franco makes a movie about Allen Ginsburg or Elizabeth Alexander reads a poem at Barack Obama’s inauguration. But, let’s face it, we’re not getting a lot of love from the world at large, not getting a lot of coverage in the mainstream media, not ever subject to what people call a “water cooler” moment.
But fuck that.
As Becky Kim said, we know who we are in this sport.
Because here’s the secret that maybe the world is missing: if you pay attention, poetry and synchronized swimming will blow your mind.
I’ve been watching a lot of old footage of synchronized swimming routines (and you should too) and the thing that jumps out at me most is an almost aggressive precision and an almost unbearable loveliness. Watching a group of legs rise from the water to the exact same height, with the exact same straight legs and pointed toes, with the just-so spacing as they rise like a wave, with perfect distance between them, and then fall back into the water, becoming less like individual bodies and more like a brand new animal, well, it is exhilarating. They spin and arch and fan. They web like spiders and twirl like pinwheels. If you let yourself go, they might move you to tears.
It all seems so easy, but what goes unnoticed is that swimmers — and poets — are working their asses off underwater so that what we see is only the meticulous and transcendent routine. Poets might take weeks to come up with just the right line, or even just the right word. We might change an enjambment dozens of times before getting it right. We are bound to be mortified by a glut of sloppy drafts before we land on just the right incarnation, and then we’ll send it out into the world to be scored and judged. And we do all of this knowing that we don’t get taken seriously too often by those outside our world. We do it because we love it, because all that work underwater can be as beautiful as all that beauty above water. We do it because it’s what we do.
Come August, I’ll be sitting with my daughters in front of our color TV, watching Mary Killman and Mariya Koroleva compete for gold. These Olympic athletes are creating art, beauty, and wonder out of their own bodies, as we poets try to do from our own souls. That pursuit is so decent it takes my breath away. And there’s no joke about that.
FIRST, WE MUST CONSIDER the draw.
This is the amount of weight an archer pulls when drawing a bow: 50 pounds is the average draw for the male Olympian; 20 pounds the average for the female. With a recurve (the Olympic bow of choice), weight increases as the bow is drawn, stopping at its peak weight: imagine, if you will, the strength required to draw, steady, then focus your arrow with 50 pounds of tension weighing on a single arm, all in the hopes of hitting a target at 70 meters in less than 40 seconds. Like many of the Olympics’ less visually spectacular sports (curling comes to mind, though the Norwegian team’s harlequin pants certainly made an impression), archery’s drama is internal; but for those who have ever practiced it, as I have, watching archery reminds us that, while a feat of both instinct and psychology, it is most importantly a sport of stamina. The draw never changes, but your ability to pull efficiently does, and the tendency of your arrow to wobble — a weakness inherent to every shot due to the arrow’s torque — will only increase as you fatigue, even with the aid of a stabilizer. Without training, the draw weight will exhaust you after a few shots. Your target focus will slide, your bowstring fingers callous like a guitar player’s. Most painfully, the tender inner forearm of the hand that grips your bow belly will burn with welts that the bowstring, having released the arrow at 150 miles per hour, raises at it snaps against your exposed flesh like a wet whipcord of Kevlar. Instinctively, you’ll flinch at each release, ruining your shot. You will have to learn to wear an arm and chest guard.
Meanwhile the arrow (carbon or aluminum-based) will be on its swift yet downward trajectory, hopefully about to slice into the ever-longed for bull’s eye at the target’s heart. For the morbid among us wondering about the effects of an arrow on a hapless bystander, a 50 pound draw is enough to kill an elk at 40 feet; it is certainly enough to take out the less impressive mule deer or pierce the heart of an unlucky man. After the hideous murders in Aurora, Colorado, I hesitate to remind us that archery is, according to its origins, a martial art, but that is part of its appeal. At least it was for me, learning to shoot over a decade ago when I was living in Wyoming: intoxicated to find myself in control of a power that was, in its most essential form, deadly.
Of course, there are those who’ve stripped away these bloodier aspects of the sport to hone in on its craft. I’m thinking of Zen archery, a practice which focuses the participant’s mind on two of the most notable “weapons” in an archer’s arsenal: the stance and the breath, both of which are essential to archery as art. The breath, with its rising and falling action, its ability to steady or speed up the heart, is harnessed in one balletic motion to the raising of the bow, then to the drawing and notching of the arrow, then to the steadying of the sight. So, too, is one’s stance elemental; turning, as it does, the body into something arrow-like itself: the face forward but chest angled, one foot placed firmly before the other so that nothing impedes the arrow’s trajectory when released, nothing increases that troublesome fish-tailing. Stance is so important that the ancient Greeks believed the Amazons, fearless female bow hunters from the East, sheared off a breast to keep from marring it. If your chest is squared, your stance boxy or if you slouch, the arrow’s flight will reflect it. The point in Zen archery is to forget a target exists; you are to focus instead upon that purposeful drawing-back of the bow: the focus of the body on the body, rather than on one of the body’s many abstract goals. I, who at first could barely hit the side of a barn during practice, found this premise both forgiving and delightfully appealing.
And yet, without the focus of a target, I came to believe that archery lacked something. The target reminds the archer that the key to her sport is, ultimately, restraint. The Olympics, naturally, prefer spectacle: television revels at the sight of athletes pushed to the point of breaking, past nausea, past exhaustion, somewhere to the place where the heart might stop and the lungs feel as if they are being torn from the body. Archery requires stamina, but not of this kind. Archery reminds us that there is one target, and the resources to hit it are limited. You do not shoot merely in the hopes of hitting something. Bow hunters especially know this, and it is why it is so instructive to practice with them. You have one kill shot, they remind you, and if you miss it then you have at best wasted an arrow and at worst hurt an animal you will then, by both moral and practical requirement, have to track for miles to put it out of its misery. To this end, the novice hunter trains by practicing indoors, shooting at videos of deer projected on screens, games that show the player where the arrow struck, only considering the shot a success if the animal could have been instantly killed.
If I wax poetic or sentimental in my descriptions of archery, it is because I think there’s poetry in the sport. Watching the South Koreans prepare yet again to dominate the event, I’m thrilled anew at the grace, the elegance, the cool forbearance of the athletes. Restraint like this is, for me, one of poetry’s defining features, too — something, no matter how long the poem or what the subject may be, must remain unsaid for the said itself to have poignancy. This is why it makes sense that Apollo, god of the sun and lyric poetry, is also the god of archery. Restraint is partner to the lyric: it acts as its emotional, tonal, sometimes even ethical focus. Restraint demands accuracy, which is — if not always fair in a democratic sense — still a type of fairness, requiring us to find the right word, the right phrase. And there is something invigorating to feel yourself engaged in that kind of focus, to work within the confines of imaginative restraint. Poetry’s power is precision, its ability to reveal a person not just as he is but as he intends himself to be, uncovering the secret self that most of us, including the writer, have forgotten.
This precision is something that is, at its most fundamental level, instinctive. People outside the classroom love to quiz creative writing teachers about the efficacy of their pedagogy: really, they insist, can creative writing be taught? I believe it can, much in the way that the basics of archery are: I can instruct you on the purpose and characteristics of metaphor. I can train you to recognize (and excise) a cliché. I can educate you in traditional poetic form. I can engage you in the theories around Conceptual writing. What I can’t do is teach you how to recognize in your own life what has the power and depth to translate into a poem versus what will become merely a charming anecdote to tell at a party. Working poets know this difference instinctively in the same way that world-class archers learn to shoot intuitively, if we are to learn anything from the example of South Korean Olympic contender Im Dong Hyun. Legally blind, barely able to distinguish between the colored rings of a target, Im still dominated at the Beijing Olympics and is this year’s favorite for an individual gold medal. Opthamologists, enamored of his skills and backstory, have over the years offered to correct his vision, but to no avail: Im doesn’t believe it’s sight that makes him the athlete he is. He can see the target just fine, he insists. Meaning, for him, he never had to see it at all.
Thinking about Im’s “blindness,” one of my favorite poems comes to mind: Rilke’s “The Archaic Torso of Apollo,” a poem entirely about sight or, rather, about instinctively knowing what is absent from it. “We never knew his head and all the light/ that ripened in his fabled eyes,” Rilke writes, “but his torso still glows like a candelabra/ in which his gazing, turned down low,/ holds fast and shines.” The poem goes on to describe the sensuous ruin of the archer god’s torso in a sonnet that is itself a delicate balance of seeing and intuition, power and restraint, ending with these last two lines that shoot out as if from nowhere: “For there is no place/ that does not see you. You must change your life.” This is what I mean about the power of instinct coupled with restraint: here, the lines are crisp, simple, devastatingly to the point — and completely unexpected. How you get from one moment — looking at a ruined sculpture of Apollo — to that admonishment of the reader to change her entire existence is something that can never, maybe should never, be explained in a classroom.
All of this is why I have come up with the (probably untenable) theory that, in our literature, archers and those possessed of the archer’s skills are generally our heroes. Think of Robin Hood and William Tell, Legolas and Katniss Everdeen. Even Daryl Dixon on The Walking Dead comes to mind: I think it’s the bow that comes to redefine him, to change him from being one of the show’s most violent, moronically racist characters to one of its moral compasses: someone able to feel the whole picture, where others only see it. The bow as poetic symbol of nobility, instinct, and restraint is also why the ending of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin so shocks me. The idea that a young man would murder his family and schoolmates with a bow and arrows seems not only a horrible perversion of the art, but a faintly ludicrous proposition. It strikes me now, writing this, that this may be one last way in which archery is like poetry; over time, both have been socially neutered of their powers: archery through the invention of far more deadly weaponry, poetry through more commercially successful forms of entertainment. Both now are “merely decorative.” But I remember the swiftness with which Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939” made the rounds after the attacks on September 11th, and when, onscreen, I hear that definitive thunk of the arrow hitting its mark, I remember again the slick curve of a bow in my hands, the sting of the bowstring as the arrow leaves my fingers. There’s something else we have to remember, alongside that elegance, that quiet beauty that we have made slightly quaint. Something that will always remain a little outside our control. Something that still has the ability to be dangerous.
TO SAY I AM LOUSY at sports is an understatement. Given the chance, I would pick myself last for my own baseball, handball or volleyball team. And yet, I love to watch athletics more than almost anything, and I find this to be true with many poets I know. Contrary to popular belief, poets are some of the most avid sports fans around. I’ve wondered about it for a long time and I’ve decided that there’s no better time or place to consider the question of what draws poets to sports than the 2012 Summer Games. Starting with the opening ceremonies on July 27th some of the most interesting poets and poet-critics in the country (and a few from the UK) will talk about sports and poetry — what it is to do something really well and what it is to risk failure on the world’s largest stage. We’ll hear about archery and synchronized swimming, boxing and basketball. We’ll have coverage of what we’ll be calling “The Ghost Sports,” the sports that used to be in the Olympics and aren’t any more, because I suppose I can understand why we don’t play baseball at the Games but I am bamboozled by the fact that we don’t play cricket.
It’s easy to say poets are attracted to sport for reasons that have something to do with form. I’m sure that’s true, but I also think it has something do with the possibility of failure and, in the case of many Olympic sports, the fact that nobody really watches what you do most of the time. When I asked poets to write for this series, I let them pick their sport. I’m fascinated by the fact that we have a ton of coverage of swimming and boxing and almost no coverage of track and field. People were lining up to talk about wrestling and archery, while gymnastics only had a couple of takers. So, one of the questions we’ll be thinking about over the next few weeks is, “What does the word 'popular' mean?” This is a question poets think about all the time. As Richard Howard told my class on one of my first days as an MFA student at Columbia, “Saying you are a famous poet is like saying you are a famous mushroom.” Why do we do it? It may be easy to say, “For the love of the game,” but I think it’s true. You really have to love what you do to make the crazy decision to be a poet. Or an archer. Or a member of the Olympic canoeing team.
Over the next few weeks you’ll see a mix of voices and aesthetics. You’ll witness the kind of exuberant and rigorous curiosity that exemplifies the work of these poets and the work we do here at Los Angeles Review of Books. I wanted to put together a roster of writers that helps put to rest the notion that there’s one kind of poetry being written by one kind of poet — our own Olympic team of sorts. The diversity of this group of poets is indicative of the world we live in and are committed to writing about in the poetry section at LARB. The Best American Poetry will be featuring our pieces on their site, and we hope to hear your voice from the crowd, too. Feel free to comment — join in and tell us how your Games are going.
Here’s a sample of your 2012 LARB Poetic Olympic Team.
More soon and stay gold,
PETER CAMPION is the author of two collections of poetry, Other People (2005) and The Lions (2009). He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Minnesota.
LYTTON SMITH's second book of poems, While You Were Approaching the Spectacle and Before You Were Transformed by It, is coming out from Nightboat Books in March 2013. Children in Reindeer Woods, a novel he translated from the Icelandic of Kristín Ómarsdóttir, is out now from Open Letter Books. He is Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Plymouth University. Lytton is eagerly awaiting for the time when Sheepdog Trialling is finally recognized as an Olympic sport. He once played a 12-hour tennis match for charity, but he lost a gazillion sets to two. Just like David Beckham, he did not get selected for the Great Britain football team, though no-one seems to have minded.
PAISLEY REKDAL is the author of a book of essays, The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee and four books of poetry. A hybrid photo-text memoir that combines poems, nonfiction and fiction entitled Intimate has just been published by Tupelo. Her work has received a Village Voice Writers on the Verge Award, an NEA Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, the University of Georgia Press’ Contemporary Poetry Series Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, and the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Fellowship.
LYNN MELNICK's first collection of poetry, If I Should Say I Have Hope, is forthcoming from YesYes Books in late 2012. While she has never participated in organized sports, there's a good chance she could kick your ass at air hockey or "H.O.R.S.E."
ROGER BONAIR-AGARD is a native of Trinidad & Tobago and author of two collections of poetry; tarnish & masquerade (Cypher Books, 2006) and Gully (Cypher Books/Peepal Tree Press 2010). He is Artistic Director and co-founder of NYC's LouderARTS project and poet-in-residence at Young Chicago Authors. An MFA candidate at University of Southern Maine's Stonecoast Program, Roger has played soccer at the varsity college, and adult amateur/semi-pro level.
ALISON STINE is the author of Wait, winner of the Brittingham Prize (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011), and Ohio Violence, winner of the Vassar Miller (University of North Texas Press, 2009). A former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, and a recipient of the Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, her first book of essays, The Last Hotel, has been a finalist in the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize.
ERIKA MEITNER is the author of three books of poems, including Ideal Cities (HarperCollins, 2010), a 2009 National Poetry Series winner. Her work has appeared most recently in VQR, Tin House, The Southern Review, and Best American Poetry 2011. She is an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, and is sure she would medal in laundry folding, procrastination techniques, and night-time snacking, if these were Olympic events.
OLIVER DE LA PAZ wrestled at the 135lb and 141 lb weight class. Since high school, he has gone on to write three books of poetry and co-edited the anthology A Face to Meet the Faces with Stacey Lynn Brown. He has gained an additional 40lbs and no longer fits in his singlet.
A. VAN JORDAN is the author of Rise, which won the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Award (Tia Chucha Press); M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, (W.W. Norton & Co), which was awarded an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and listed as one the Best Books of 2005 by The London Times (TLS); and Quantum Lyrics, (W.W. Norton & Co). Jordan was also awarded a Whiting Writers Award and a Pushcart Prize. He is a recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, and a United States Artists Williams Fellowship. He is a Professor in the Dept. of English at the University of Michigan, and teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. The Cineaste, his fourth book, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton & Co. in 2013.
DEBORAH PAREDEZ is the author of the poetry volume This Side of Skin, and the critical study Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory. She teaches at the University of Texas-Austin and is a co-founder of CantoMundo, a national organization for Latina/o poets. Her relay team won a silver medal in the 1976 El Dorado Elementary School Field Day Track Meet.
STEPHEN BURT is Professor of English at Harvard. His books include Why I Am Not a Toddler and Other Poems by Cooper Bennett Burt (Age One), Close Calls with Nonsense, and Parallel Play. Another book of his own poems, Belmont, will appear in spring 2013.
MATTHEA HARVEY is the author of four books of poetry and two children's books, the newest of which is Cecil the Pet Glacier, illustrated by Giselle Potter. She goes to the U.S. Open every year on her birthday and would like to someday to be able to see the players' expressions without binoculars.
JENNIFER GROTZ is the author of two books of poems, most recently The Needle, and a book of translations from the French of Patrice de La Tour du Pin’s The Psalms of All My Days. She teaches at the University of Rochester, and serves as the assistant director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
KWAME DAWES is a Ghanaian-born Jamaican poet and the award-winning author of sixteen books of poetry (most recently, Wheels, 2011) and numerous books of fiction, non-fiction, criticism, and drama, and has edited nine anthologies. He is the Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner, and a Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, and Associate Poetry Editor for Peepal Tree Press in the UK. Kwame Dawes also teaches in the Pacific MFA Writing program and is a faculty member of Cave Canem. Dawes’s book, Duppy Conqueror: New and Selected Poems, will be published by Copper Canyon in 2013.
GREGORY PARDLO’s first book, Totem, received the American Poetry Review/Honickman Prize in 2007. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Callaloo, Gulf Coast,Harvard Review, The Nation, Ploughshares, and Best American Poetry 2010. A finalist for the Essence Magazine Literary Award in poetry, he is recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and a translation grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. He has received other fellowships from the New York Times, the MacDowell Colony, the Lotos Club Foundation, and Cave Canem.
JAKE ADAM YORK is the author of three books of poems—Murder Ballads (2005), winner of the Elixir Prize in Poetry; A Murmuration of Starlings (2008), co-winner of the Crab Orchard Open Competition and winner of the Colorado Book Award; and Persons Unknown (2010), published by Southern Illinois University Press as an editor’s selection in the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry. An associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver, York co-edits Copper Nickel.
YADDYRA PERALTA is a recent graduate of Florida International University's Creative Writing MFA program. Her work has appeared in Tigertail, Miami New Times, Florida Book Review, Hinchas de Poesia, and the Miami Poetry Collective's Cent Journal series. She lives in Miami, FL.
TARFIA FAIZULLAH’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Missouri Review, Ninth Letter, Blackbird, The Massachusetts Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. A Kundiman fellow, she is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Kenyon Writers’ Workshop, and other honors. Her manuscript Seam was a finalist for the Alice James Beatrice Hawley Award and the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry.
PATRICK ROSAL is the author of three full-length poetry collections, Boneshepherds, My American Kundiman, and Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive. His poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Tin House, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, Drunken Boat, and Language for a New Century. He has won, among other honors, a Fulbright Fellowship, the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award, the Global Filipino Literary Award, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Members’ Choice Award. He is a member of the Creative Writing faculty at Rutgers University-Camden.
LAUREN EGGERT-CROWE has written for Salon, The Rumpus, Ask A Socialist and The Murky Fringe, and has published poetry in several online and print literary journals. She is the author of two forthcoming poetry chapbooks: The Exhibit, and In The Songbird Laboratory. She lives in Echo Park, Los Angeles.
STACEY HARWOOD, is the managing editor of The Best American Poetry blog and website. She writes Critic’s Pick and Eat This Now columns for Time Out New York. Her poems and essays have been published in The LA Times, Mi