We Can Be Heroes: The Winter Poetry Olympics Part VII: On Curling as Poetic Line

By Lytton SmithFebruary 18, 2014

SPORT IS AN ACCIDENT and a metaphor. American Football’s Hail Marys and Wide Receivers, its forward thrust, evolved, by chance, from rugby’s backward-looking glances, its lateral passes. Rugby, in turn, was the unexpected offspring of Association Football (“soccer”): the moment in 1824 (or was it 1823?) that William Webb Ellis gathered the ball from the floor in his hands and ran with it. To flout the rules this way was to create a new sport, to engage in an act of social insurrection, to act against authority.

Take a tuft of your hair between your index and middle finger; cut it free with scissors. Where it coils into a lock: curling. The word itself an alteration, a mistake: a metathesis of the Middle English crulle, Middle Dutch krul. In one direction a fried pastry (a cruller); in another direction, a frozen sport (curling).

We’re halfway through Sochi’s curling “round robin;” teams have played 4 or 5 of their 9 games. In the Men’s standings, Britain is tied second with Sweden, while the USA languishes in 7th. In the Women’s, Britain is part of a four-way tie for fourth, with Japan, South Korea, and China. The US, 9th, only has one less victory, a sign of how tight things are. The top 4 teams, of 10, qualify for the semi-finals.

Watching the opening exchanges, I’ve been wondering what sort of poem a game of curling would be. The language of curling is not subtle, and I think of Whitmanic insistence as I listen to the commentary. Each team shoots stones, a granite circle weighing about as much as five year old. (I pause over a language difference, the Canadians and Americans shooting rocks instead, as if someone let Walter White into the set-up.) One team has the massive advantage of going last, knowing whether they need to risk all or play it safe; this advantage is known, blunt-edged, as the hammer. The stones are thrown from the hack, as if some rough territory has been eked out for the purposes of this game. Again I hear Whitman’s barbaric yawp curdled out into the Sochi cold.

Yet the sport itself is delicate as a line-break, an em-dash, a fact its metaphorical language might imply. The playing surface is a sheet, and opposite the hack lays a house: a red, white, and blue bullseye within which stones score. Only the team with a stone nearest the eye — the button — scores each round. A throw of a stone will likely knock other stones, from either team, nearer to or further from the button. I think of the sonic repercussions of each new word in a line of poetry, of Dickinson’s lyric ‘I’ being revised out of existence through rhyme: “I heard a Fly buzz - When I died.”

The Canadians, the favorites, lead 8-6 against Great Britain in the 10th and final round of the game. GB’s Liz Muirhead is at the hack, one stone left. She’s eyeing three red Canadian rocks towards the edge of the red outer ring. One yellow British stone lies close to button, in the blue inner ring; another, known as a biter, clings to the edge of the house, barely scoring. Muirhead can play a simple throw, doing enough to tie the game, sending it into the equivalent of an extra innings – but Canada has the hammer and therefore will likely win.

Or Muirhead can play a shot like a volta, that famous reversal from the sonnet’s octet into its answering sestet. Played right, her stone glides along the sheet, knocking the three red Canadian rocks out of the house, leaving three yellow British stones casually arranged within the rings — and giving Britain victory.

That, though, isn’t what happens. Muirhead’s stone slides on in the wake of her teammates’ precise brushing, their fevered attempts to shape the ice, the stone’s path, even as the stone hurries along its surface, wanting to overtake them. The stone’s angle’s slightly off, it’s velocity as if metrically flat. It cannons off the Canadian rocks, veers wildly out the house. Britain loses

It’s all about how we hold and follow the line, this sport, how we manage the friction along the way.


Lytton Smith is Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Plymouth University.

image: Jennifer Jones CC canada.com

LARB Contributor

Lytton Smith is Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Plymouth University. He is the author of a book of poems, The All-Purpose Magical Tent, and two translated novels from the Icelandic.


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