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.