Image: "Alternate Olympics 2012 Logo"
Police arrested my best friend Nubie for sneaking out after curfew in April of 10th grade. His parents grounded him for the entire summer. I was insensible to social cues, and if not for The Nubian Prince, I was effectively friendless. Ipso facto, I was grounded, too, and decided, heedless of his mother’s disapproving looks, that he and I should serve our sentences jointly. Besides, I felt like I owed him the solid of keeping him company.
Each morning, I would ride over to Nubie’s to play table tennis until his mom got home from work. He could hear my Huffy Pro Thunder wheezing as I pedaled up his driveway sometime around nine in the morning; the garage door was yawning before I rang the bell. Neither of us was a very good player at the start of summer, but The Nubian improved quickly. I played tennis since I was seven, and tried in vain to scale the mechanics of my court game to fit the table. On the court I behaved temperamentally like John McEnroe, but table tennis gave my antics no quarter.
I suspect table tennis is what set me on the unlikely trajectory beyond the gravity of my parents’ influence, and toward poetry. It’s more conventional to blame hip-hop, I know, but I am so easily distracted that music ruins my concentration. If I overhear so much as a grainy samba beat sifting through the receiver when my wife is on hold with the bank, my mind goes dark and I begin snatching at notes in the air like they’re rungs on a dream ladder carrying me to Elysium. I’ve never been diagnosed, but the rambunctious gene is dominant in my family. Holiday dinners my aunt laces the collard greens with Ritalin, otherwise family gatherings start to look like the Chuck E. Cheese’s in Brooklyn after two families show up with conflicting reservations. How else in the midst of that chaos would I have acquired focus enough to pick a handful of words, without purpose, off the communal tongue?
One summer after I moved to New York I was a teacher’s aid for middle school students in the South Bronx who had been labeled as having emotional and behavioral “challenges.” At one point, one of the students marched around the room on desktops shouting profanities with the pomp of a French naval officer. No one seemed to notice. It made me so anxious I got the hiccups.
When I read the poems they’d all turned in I noticed that many of them had similar handwriting. Tiny lettering crowded against the lines as if the letters were whispering to each other. I was told this was an effect of the kids’ medication. It occurred to me that the density of their script might not signal diminished capacity or reticence. I imagined it being a proactive attempt to vacuum unnecessary elements out of the field of attention. The theory slowly setting up shop in my head like an ABBA song was that attention in a restless mind is optimized when the frame of concern excludes all non-essential data. Rather than let them get their ya-ya’s out wilding around the room, I decided to lead them in a group activity devoid of frill and fluff. My hope was also to make them conscious of their physical presence by focusing on the economy of motion. I wanted to put them, bodily, inside their own circumscribed fields of attention. With the model of table tennis in mind, I had the kids push desks together and we folded sheets of paper into triangular wads to play finger football. Not what you were expecting? Yeah, I tried to work something out that was more ping-pong-like, but all I could find was a blue rubber handball. That shit turned ugly real fast.
I’ve also noticed a correlation between literary ambition and table tennis at artist colonies. The most committed, the players who won’t be distracted from an evening of table tennis by a flirtatious Riesling or an obscure art film are usually the ones who would most easily strike a Faustian bargain in service of their craft. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, Hart Crane, surely these were the great Anglophone players of table tennis. Yes, perhaps this is what conditioned me for poetry, my weekday routine that summer after 10th grade. Give me the nine by five field of a ping-pong table and I am instantly pacified, instantly grounded. I’ve always found it comforting.
To say my games with Nube were epic misses the point. And perhaps literary ambition is too loaded a term as well. Suggestions of scale do both poetry and table tennis a disservice. There’s often some joker in a creative writing class who claims writing poems is easier than prose because poems are “short.” And I was once guilty of believing table tennis was a miniature, portable version of tennis. Brevity should not suggest diminished intensity. Nor should a desire to precede one’s peers invite presumptions of worthiness.
Poetry and table tennis are games of reflex. They are played optimally — and play is the operative word — in the synaptic space where consciousness has no time to abstract into self-recrimination. There is no beauty in the reflex itself, there is beauty in its timing. That is, there is beauty in the relation between stimulus and reflex. In poetry, language is the stimulus we are responding to, as it accommodates and counters our efforts.
Language is not a thing to be defeated. Neither is one’s opponent in table tennis, for that matter. Misunderstanding this leads to misconceptions about the nature of ambition among poets and Olympic athletes alike. (I’m reminded of the lines from Kipling that appear above the player’s entrance at Wimbledon: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/ And treat those two imposters just the same.”) Poets and Olympians are in deep communion with their contexts of engagement. The difference is that poets are obliged to determine the size of the playing field as well as the conduct of play appropriate within it. Literary conventions, genres, and received forms like the sonnet exist to mitigate our anxiety in the face of infinite possibility in this regard. But striking this balance is not a simple matter of deciding between the boot cut and the straight leg. You have to know how to wear the garment. In other words, staying in that harmonic mode is the real challenge.
Take for example, George Herbert’s seventeenth century poem, “Easter Wings.” The poem is tricked out with a series of redundancies so we can’t possibly sleep on the message: it’s a hall of mirrors. In case we miss the point in passive reading, we get it dramatically enacted before our eyes. Even if we hear the poem muddled in the voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher, the cadence conveys the speaker’s spiritual diminution. The speaker’s process of surrendering the ego culminates (“Most poore” and “most thinne”) with a corresponding embrace of salvation and redemption, a process that is described, again, metrically, rhetorically and typographically in the poem’s ebbing and expanding lines. Finally, that the poem’s symmetrical stanzas happen to look like a pair of wings is, to my mind, its least salient achievement. So much balance is meant to suggest the presence of divine genius, grace, etc., but it also credits Herbert’s world record to his capacity for submission rather than his domination of the game. You have to know (and respect, if not love) your opponent. The player is the game.
His real name is Arthur. I call him The Nubian Prince ironically because that fool stays on ethnic probation. I reminded him of this as he fished around in the milk crate where we stored the equipment. He tossed me my paddle, arguing that behavioral norms are defined in relation to the cultural and economic class with which one chooses to identify. “Duh,” I said. That he could flout our norms so completely was a sign of how deeply he had internalized them. “Poppycock!” I shouted because I didn’t know what else to say.
Nube was scrupulous about his shit. Nube had opinions on the merits of the Chinese versus Japanese pen holds, the thickness of the pad on the paddle blade relative to ball spin. His paddles were layered with varying polymers that, according to him, would respond isometrically to the ball’s “coefficient of restitution,” which gives the skilled player greater control over the “axis of rotation.” We both knew he was windbagging, but it served our mutual vanity to pretend something had been said and something understood. The end result was that he crushed the ball every opportunity he got. Once he figured out the topspin, sometimes fattening his stroke in delayed gratification in order to return the ball from well below the level of the table, the ball usually looped inbounds with such sawtoothed fury that I had no choice but to block, holding my paddle in the universal posture of the punked. But he continued to grow, presenting new shots like curios and interesting riddles for me to solve, forcing me to grow in turn.
My paddle: a simple wooden job with a pad textured like a jelly jar opener glued to each side. I may not have been so particular about it, but I wasn’t disinterested either. The Spartans didn’t keep shit simple because they didn’t know any better. I, too, had a rationale: I didn’t want my paddle to feel like a chunk of the gymnasium floor. I liked to feel the click of the ball making contact, like the shutting of a humidor or a camera aperture or a quality pen top. I could do it all day. Click, click, click, tiny shock waves caught in the web of carpal bones. I used a simple handshake grip and could feel the imaginary elastic that connected my paddle to the ball lengthen and tense as with each forehand I led Nubie through the shadowed recesses of his garage. We competed in mirrored gestures, gestures altered in the translations our bodies made. Such intimacy, such rare and peaceful focus the game affords. The joy in reciprocity.
We spent so much time together I’m surprised his mom didn’t accuse us of being on drugs. Maybe she did and Nube ran interference. When the cops caught him, they knew Nubie wasn’t alone. But he never told anyone who it was that got away.
The relay, at heart, is about conveyance. The body trained as a vessel. Handing off — often blindly and so seamlessly we hardly notice the moment of transfer — is the point. Perhaps that's why there seems to be less glory in it than in other events. What is carried and passed on is what matters most. Dropping the baton is the worst thing that can happen. Worse, even, than finishing last. I suppose that's why, as a poet, I feel rather sentimental about the relay, why its plain-faced lessons never fail to frustrate me. It doggedly insists that we concern ourselves with the prosaic mechanics of what and how and why and to whom we seek to convey. You know, the fundamentals. A reminder of the impetus of our drive as writers: to train our bodies as vessels.
The relay, at heart, is suffused with a juxtapositional tension. It requires both solitary task and delicately choreographed connection to another. Not quite a conventional team sport, certainly not an individual event, the relay showcases solitary striving in relation to a succession of other lone attempts. And isn’t that what writing is, after all? The relay is, as the name suggests, relational, and not just because it puts the body in contact with other bodies, but because of the ways it positions the self in relation to what precedes it and what follows, in relation to history. "Truth be told, I do not want to forget," Natasha Trethewey writes. It's sort of how I feel when I'm writing in received forms. Endeavoring alone in a long and ongoing line of tradition. Only I'm never at the end of the line, never the last runner, but somewhere in the middle, where those of us who clock a slower pace are often positioned. Struggling simply not to lose ground.
The sonnet, in its own way, is a form of relay. Or, rather, the relay, like Shakespeare or Stallings or Hacker or Trethewey, offers lessons about how a sonnet works. On a technical level, both forms are structured around four parts — four runners, four swimmers, or three quatrains followed by a couplet (at least in its English form) — each with its own scheme and purpose. Such stability in the number four, such potential for elegant symmetry. Or stiff artifice. I've sometimes wondered why there are four runners in a relay — why not three or five? And, in my wild impatience, I've wondered, too, why can't they just find four runners who all run equally fast for each of the four sections. And then I wonder why I keep writing the same unsuccessful poem over and over again. The relay invites us to get intimate with the vicissitudes of time — not just with our own humble place in its longue durée but with the ways it functions within our work. Each leg of the relay is characterized by its pace. As such, the relay offers lessons in the necessity and craft of pacing, in how to honor the various and temporally varied phases of our own writing process and in how to approach the structure of the poem itself.
Both the relay and the sonnet rely on a crucial turn. In the relay, each participant makes her strides, the moment of exchange marking a new turn. What the relay says is make the turn in a way that propels fluid, forward movement. The relay says the turn is not so much a turn as it is a clasping link between what's come before and what comes next. The pivot of relation.
The final runner in a relay race is typically the fastest. The anchor. A propulsive, stabilizing force. Like the relay, the final leg of a sonnet, does its work most efficiently. Who needs a quatrain when a couplet can do the job in half the time? "This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong, / To love well, which thou must leave ere long."
In the end, it's not about the runners or the writers. The baton or the torch or the poem is the real star. Okay, so maybe Mohammad Ali was the real star when he dipped his relay torch to light the cauldron's flame at the 1996 Opening Ceremonies in Atlanta. But, even in this scene, what moves me so utterly is the way it makes plain that even the greatest bodies among us are merely impermanent conduits for greatness: the Greatest Fighter of All Time emerges from the darkness of backstage to receive the lit torch, his right hand steadily lifting the flame, left hand a fluttering moth. Ali's beautiful, terrible, monumental, mortal, Parkinson's-wreaked body holds the torch and we hold our breath. Will he manage to pass on the flame? We watch his body struggle, watch the cauldron fill with fire, and we are witnessing not just the harrowing proximity of failure that haunts our every attempt, but the simultaneous embodiment of both triumph and defeat. In this moment, and in the relay more generally, we are forced to reckon with the passing of time even as we are propelled inexorably forward. The baton is passed. The body loses momentum. The flame burns on.
It wasn't supposed to be hard. American women's basketball team has won gold at every Olympics since Atlanta in 1996, where U.S. success — anticipated and then realized — helped to launch the WNBA. The W, in turn — though teams come and go — remains the world's best showcase for professional women's basketball: this year's U.S. team had nothing but WNBA all-stars, including the three best scorers in the league, its strongest pure low-post player, and its two best point guards. The volatile, exuberant Diana Taurasi can score from anywhere on the court, and dominate almost anybody one on one, as long as she doesn't foul out; Seimone Augustus has cultivated what might be the purest, most beautiful jump shot in the history of the women's game, with Maya Moore's two- and three-point arc close behind. Sylvia Fowles, whose musculature reminds me of several comic-book superheroes, can hold a position like nobody else, and elevate like a military helicopter. As for the point guards, the players (often shorter than all the others) who bring the ball up the court and often control the flow of the game: Sue Bird has a legion of imitators for good reason, and Lindsay Whalen seems to have jet thrusters in her sneakers, the ability to pass through solid objects (e.g. defenders), and eyes in the back of her head.
Other national teams have one or two or three internationally recognizable stars; the U.S. team is as deep as it has ever been, and deeper than all its competitors — so deep that coach Geno Auriemma can send all his starters off the court, replace them with bench players (as in hockey ) and suffer for nothing, except perhaps at center. Where, on the men's side, some players turn their country down, fearing injury or conserving their strength for the pro season, on the women's side almost every player asked to represent the U.S. does; one exception this year, center Brittney Griner of Baylor University (you may have heard that she dunks), will likely say yes when she's finished with college play. Another WNBA star, the sharpshooting guard Becky Hammon, wanted to play in the Olympics — or perhaps to build up her savings — so badly that when Team USA turned her down, she accepted, for pay, Russian citizenship, and now plays on the Russian national team.
For all that talent Team USA brought to the UK, observers saw problems, structural ones, beforehand. WNBA salaries are respectable (comparable to assistant professors) but not stratospheric, so most elite players take wintertime jobs with better-paid teams overseas: that means they play year-round, and wear out their bodies and spirits, on average, faster than their male counterparts, who take the NBA off-season off, and faster than Europeans, who take non-Olympic summers off. Year-round play also means that, between their overseas teams in the winter and the W during the summer, American Olympians don't practice together as often as other national teams. That perennial problem might have been assuaged, this year, because so many of the Americans played together, in college, for the same coach: six of 11 represented UConn under Geno Auriemma, the wisecracking perfectionist whose teams have won six of the last 12 NCAA crowns.
And yet, in the first Olympic game, the cracks showed. Team Croatia, not expected to make it out of the preliminary round, pulled ahead several times during the first three quarters. It was a low-scoring match, frustrating to watch, for those three quarters, unless you supported particular Croatians: 6'6" Marisa Vrsaljko, for example, who appears not to have played for teams outside Croatia, kept outworking the Americans to hit open outside shots. Jelena Ivezic connected on trey after trey, and 6'9" center Luca Ivankovic used her big body to keep the U.S. from the lane. Team USA looked surprised, underwhelmed by their own lack of coordination, and unable to play as a team.
But that was the first 30 minutes; it's a 40-minute game. Whalen came through, with assists and with fast twisting layups. So did Angel McCoughtry, who has brought into the pros her collegiate habit of trying to score all the points herself: she didn't have to do it here, though she looked ready. U.S. perimeter defense picked up, Croatia wilted, and the Americans rolled, 81-56. Announcers like to talk about veterans, and most of the U.S. players have gold medals from 2004 or 2008, but the keys to the runaway win Saturday were the players — Whalen, McCoughtry, Candace Parker — never invited to the Olympics before.
Was this game a tune up, a demonstration of nerves, a way to get going, even if it took a while to bring the team up to speed? Or did USA vs. Croatia show other teams, with more talent, how to beat the USA? Likely more of the former, but maybe a bit of the latter. Team USA in 2008 had moments when no outside shots were falling, and veteran center Lisa Leslie — nicknamed "My Pretty Pony" by WNBA fans for her hair ribbons and her self-centered demeanor — saved the day with her repertoire of low-post moves, making it hard for most fans to keep hating her. Leslie has now retired, and other nations have big women who match or exceed what Team USA supplies, as big as the 6'6" Fowles and more skilled than Ivankovic: Australia's 6'8" Liz Cambage, for example. The Australian national team, called the Opals, had no trouble in their first match against Great Britain; Opals forward Lauren Jackson, who also leads the WNBA's Seattle Storm, can take over a game inside or outside, and has a legitimate claim to the title of best women's basketball player in the world.
Other elite teams, though, had bigger scares. Most experts pick the Opals to finish second, as they did in Beijing, and in Athens, and in Sydney; the same experts mostly expected the Russians in third. But that team nearly lost to Canada Saturday. Led by Kim Smith and Shanna Thorburn (who played together at the University of Utah), the Maple Leaf squad had more fun, played better together, and led till the last few minutes, when Hammon scored eight in a row. The favored Czechs lost to the Chinese, and the Brazilians — who have a great Olympic history, but are missing their best guard — lost badly to France. Everything so far points to yet one more championship in which the U.S. sees — and struggles to beat, but finally does — Australia.
As you watch the rest of the prelim games, keep your eye on Australia's Jackson and Cambage, and also on Opals point guard Kristi Harrower, who is tiny (for this level of play) and plays smart — she was one of my favorites to watch, a few years ago, when she was in the WNBA. If you watch Russia, ask whether they can play together, and whether they're asking Hammon to do too much. As for Team USA, ask where they keep, or lose, focus; whether and how they can out-rebound other top teams; whether Taurasi (whose WNBA play has suffered from strings of minor injuries) looks healthy and happy; and whether the players from UConn (Bird, Cash, Taurasi, Jones, Moore, and Charles) can extend their chemistry to the folks who have not played for Geno before.
Women's basketball, even more than men's hoops, is a team game; excellent individuals can beat bad teams, but when the best teams face each other, it's essential to make the right pass; to work together on defense; to know where your teammates are. That's why it's sometimes annoying to watch McCoughtry, and why her team, the Atlanta Dream, lost to my Minnesota Lynx in the WNBA championships last year. The Lynx, led by Whalen, could see the floor together, respect one another, and hear their coach. So can the UConn teams, year after year; if Geno can get the same cooperation from Team USA — which seems likely — their depth, and their guard skills, should carry the day, though you might still worry about the low post.
Some Olympic sports have little historical connection to the writing of poetry, so that the poets covering them for the Los Angeles Review of Books have something close to clear ground. That's not the case for basketball, which has an intimidating tradition of verse second only to all those poems about baseball; Yusef Komunyakaa comes immediately to mind, and there's a decent anthology (edited by Todd Davis) of poets, men and women, on James Naismith's game. Don Johnson (not the cheeseball actor, but the Appalachian poet) wrote a terrific book about poets on sports: Johnson's The Sporting Muse argued that poems about basketball see both hoops and lyric as ways to stop time, defy gravity, violate physical law, as players (streetball or pro) rise up to do the impossible. What do these Olympic women — and the women's side more generally — add to such accounts of poems and hoops?
We might say they put poetry back on the ground: they remind us that the kind of effort that makes poems memorable, and makes elite games winnable, involves something that by its nature has to be shared. For poets it's language, a set of expectations, a history of forms, a context of usage; for women's hoops it's the basketball itself, as well as the game plan, on offense and defense, and boards. People who watch the men but not the women like to talk about dunks, individual shows of strength; the woman best known for dunking, Brittney Griner, is the best U.S. player not in London, and women's hoops — with or without Griner, even at its highest levels — generally takes place on the ground. The women's game, more than the men's, is a game about teamwork, shared defense, picks and thread-the-needle assists; it's about making the right number of passes, moving the ball inside, and perhaps back out. (The best men's teams can do that too — think of the San Antonio Spurs — but the women must do it, all the time.) Whalen can arc her body spectacularly in midair on the way to the hoop, but she belongs at the Olympic level (she belonged there in 2008 too, by the way) because she can see the whole court and make the right pass. Moore and Seimone Augustus can send the ball like a guided missile right into the net, but they also know where to catch, how to set a screen, and how to let their teammates set them up. (Moore, with her guard skills, can set all her teammates up too.) Augustus made the transition from college to pro excellence by learning to rebound, to play consistent defense, and to contribute even when her shots did not fall. To watch women's hoops is to think about collaboration, and to think about how collaboration inflects even individual achievements, like those embodied in lyric verse: to put together a piece of language so that it might stick around for 200 years, you have to have a sense of what the words you use could mean for other people, of how the language you use, that means so much to you, might sound in somebody else's head.
And the women bring basketball, and the aspirations it represents, back down to the ground in other ways: to watch them is to remember the practical constraints of their lives, even as the game they play tries to defy gravity and time. The women's lives, unlike the men's, are obviously affected by their salaries, and by the opportunities they seek, or forgo, to earn money for playing year-round. They're also affected by pregnancy and motherhood; just one of this year's Team USA players has kids (Candace Parker, who gave birth in 2009), but plenty of other elite players have to figure out child care. The starting center for the Lynx, Taj McWilliams-Franklin, had two children as a teenager, raising one of them as a single mom; Taj and her husband Reggie, who recently left the Army, also have a nine-year-old daughter. Taj turns 42 this year. You won't see her in London, but you might see her as a commentator by the time of the Olympics in Brazil; you might even see her daughters by her side.
Picture the fencers. Picture them, without their gear, covered in bruises. All the weapons leave bruises, from thrusts, flicks, and the sabre's slash. They leave welts as well.
When I fenced in high school, we were proud of the marks. Mostly, it didn't hurt to get them. Hurt isn't the right word because it feels good to hit someone, to be hit, in a bit of flesh that gives to the point.
I don't mean to sound masochistic or sadistic, but the pleasure exists. And I was never interested in fencing for the grace or technique of it. I was competitive, physical, and enjoyed the fight.
Even now, some 10 years later, I remember how it feels to land the point of my foil in someone's side, to turn my hand, to push so the blade bends out to the side, to understand the belly anew, as a soft target.
Some parts of the body are protected. Women wear a chest plate, made of plastic, and shaped like breasts, as if women wear perky Victoria's Secret bras while they fence, instead of sports bras that flatten them. Even in the Olympics you can see these rounded cups through the lame and jacket.
As a poet, sometimes I feel this way, that I've geared up like a poet, but that my lines about motherhood, about sex, my method of engagement, my very words, have flagged me as a woman poet, and then I'm standing there with plastic breasts that are the same size and shape as every other woman poet.
But if our breasts matter at all, our breasts are different.
Only one person, that I know of, has died from fencing. Vladimir Viktorovich Smirnov. He was the gold medalist in men's Individual Foil at the 1980 Summer Olympics. In 1981, he won the World Championships. In 1982, he returned to the World Championships and fenced with Matthias Behr.
During the bout, Behr lunged, landed his point on Smirnov's chest, the blade bent, as it should, but then snapped, and Behr's forward motion continued, driving the broken blade through Smirnov's mask and into his brain. While death was not immediate, death did come.
Safety precautions changed. So changed the metals of the weapons, the mesh of the masks. But I know, maybe all fencers know, it could happen again. The full force of the body, the power of forward momentum, the frequency of broken blades, the mesh still only mesh, and our fragile faces.
Poetry is dangerous. It can be. We don't typically use the word danger. We use words like risks and stakes. The risks of the poet and the stakes of the poem. But danger is implicit, sometimes explicit.
I've always valued the danger in poetry. I might value it above all else. Be it a weakness or a strength, it is a symptom of my fighting heart which led me to fencing in the first place.
When I fenced, I always felt the connection to sword fighting, to duels. The fights to the death, or just to first blood. A mere scratched arm. Honor and disgrace doled out at once.
Sometimes the Olympics, with its rules and lights and wired bodies, hides this connection to fencing's history.
On July 30th, 2012, the rules required a young woman sit on the piste for about an hour while she waited for the results of an appeal. She cried much of the time.
Articles said she "broke down in tears," "was reduced to tears," "was in a flood of tears." Some mock her and some defend her.
To me, she sat as if at the foot of the world and hid nothing from it. And while challenges of judges are common in most sports, it was still brave of her to compel the deliberations, to sit and continue sitting.
But for a time, her seated, weeping body, lit up on the piste, ruined my romance with fencing.
This year, I'm watching most of the games with my 14-month-old son. I'm happy to report that fencing had him transfixed, at least for one bout.
The first time I watched Olympic fencing was when my coach played VHS tapes of men's Individual Foil. I thought they had special foils, different from my own, because theirs whipped about wildly as if they were not made of metal. But it is just the strength of the men's arms. I was in awe.
I read today, "the tip of a fencing blade is widely considered the second fastest moving object in sport, behind a marksman's bullet." Awe is still the right word. And perhaps awe is what my son experienced as he watched that bout from my lap, quiet and still.
I pretended to fence my son with my finger. "Chh, chh, chh," I said as I moved my finger between four and six. Then I poked him.
I asked him, "Are you going to be a really great fencer one day?"
And he answered, "Uh-huh" — a word, a perfect sound, that he's only been making for a few days.
It will not be hard to encourage him. Peter Pan's dagger against Captain Hook's sword. The Princess Bride. When he's older, The Three Musketeers and Cyrano de Bergerac.
It will be harder, I worry, to foster a love of poetry in him. But another part of me thinks he will find poetry as I have found it: threatening, urgent, and utterly magnetic.
WHEN SOMEONE ASKED Joyce Carol Oates how she could enjoy such a brutal sport, her answer was: “I don’t ‘enjoy’ boxing in the usual sense of the word, and never have; boxing isn’t invariably ‘brutal’; and I don’t think of it as a ‘sport.’” And when I first read that response in her short but brilliant On Boxing, I knew I’d found a soul mate. Aside from agreeing perfectly with her answer as it applied to boxing, I want to say that it also rings true for those impossible questions unknowing (if well-intentioned) people ask about poetry, that other always-purportedly-about-to-die past-time. When someone asks me “what kind of poetry do you write?” the least rude answer I’ve come up with is “The good kind.” And “What do you write poems about?” is to me as naïve a question as the false assumption that two boxers are fighting because they are angry at each other.
I first encountered boxing the year before I went back to grad school. I was scared, because I’d dropped out of the first Ph.D program I was in already and was pretty sure the only way to survive academia — and I include creative writing in that word, too — was to embrace a sort of dejected before-the-fact cynicism about success and omnipresent irony. Here’s the first thing I loved about boxing: you can’t box “ironically” — that is, you cannot do it without acknowledging your investment in the enterprise.
I have to admit that I still watch the fights “like a girl.” I mean, I don’t memorize the stats, I rarely am able to articulate and analyze the fight strategies even as I watch them unfolding in the ring, I go whole rounds where my emotions are so strong I’m virtually blind — it really does all happen so fast! — and, most strangely and embarrassingly of all, I almost never remember who wins a fight. That is, I will for a week or two, but even two months later, I won’t. I am the same with novels, especially the ones I love most: I never remember the ending. This is not how my father watches sports — he remembers individual plays and highlights, he remembers dates, he remembers scores. I remember sensations and details, but not the useful ones. I remember the look of exhaustion on a boxer’s face in the corner between rounds, for instance. Or whether my own palms were sweaty by the end just from watching.
I am not the first poet to fall in love with boxing. References to pugilism go back to Homer, but the English Romantic poets in particular took great interest in the sport, as have various literati from Melville to Mailer. Albert Camus and Ernest Hemingway, as well as T. S. Eliot and Lord Byron, in particular, participated in the sport; others, such as John Clare, were avid spectators.
Also referred to as “the sweet science” by Pierce Egan, one of boxing’s most enthusiastic historians, boxing has always had its own slang. In Egan’s time, there were references to “the milling cove”, “flash,” and perhaps most intriguingly, a fighter’s “bottom.” But linguistic delights aside, writers have surely been attracted to boxing for more complex reasons. Oates hypothesizes that “the habitual attraction of serious writers to boxing […] is the sport’s systematic cultivation of pain in the interests of a project, a life-goal,” i.e. the publication of a poem or book. “That which is ‘public’ is but the final stage in a protracted, arduous, grueling, and frequently despairing period of preparation.”
For what it’s worth, the opposite also holds true. Members of “the fancy,” perhaps most memorably Muhammad Ali, also liken boxing to poetry. A. J. Liebling, boxing reviewer for the New Yorker, opined about the struggling and sacrifice of young boxers who “must live, even though, like modern poets, they have scant means of communication with the general public.” But “Since the Guggenheim Foundation has expressed no concern for their problems, a lot of them run tabs at the Neutral [sports bar],” he notes.
Guillaume Apollinaire’s small, concrete poem, “Un Terrible Boxeur” enacts the confusing collision between these two vocations. In it he captures and commingles a solid physicality of form with a wistful meditation. The “form” of the poem in the shape of a boxer is apparent; the text translates simply as “Terrible boxer boxing with his memories and his thousand desires.” I’ve thought long and hard about this strange little calligramme: is Apollinaire suggesting that what makes a poet good is what makes a boxer “terrible”? Is he suggesting, perhaps in a self-chastising way, that poets strive to be better “boxers”? Or is he merely discovering through the poem that a boxer requires an opponent, an objective “other”, in order to thrive?
There are things and phenomena in the world that invite us to interpret, imagine, embellish them with our subjectivity. Boxing simultaneously encourages and discourages that, and somehow in the process, cleans the senses and the mind, as it were. You may be allowed to romanticize about a given fighter or hope for the turnout of a given fight, but your projections will be corrected by the end. Or rather, they will be noticeably distinct from what took place in the ring. Indeed, “Part of the pleasure of going to a fight is reading the newspapers next morning to see what the sports writers think happened,” Liebling agrees. “This pleasure is prolonged, in the case of a big bout, by the fight films. You can go to them to see what did happen. What you eventually think you remember about the fight will be an amalgam of what you thought you saw there, what you read in the papers you saw, and what you saw in the films.”
So it is easy to see why Oates claims that
Each boxing match is a story—a unique and highly condensed drama without words. Even when nothing sensational happens: then the drama is “merely” psychological. Boxers are there to establish . . . a public accounting of the outermost limits of their beings; they will know, as few of us can know of ourselves, what physical and psychic power they possess—of how much, or how little, they are capable. To enter the ring near-naked and to risk one’s life is to make of one’s audience voyeurs of a kind: boxing is so intimate. It is to ease out of sanity’s consciousness and into another, difficult to name.
To correct this, or at least to try to monitor my subjectivity, I took up the practice of scoring fights when I watched them, initially on a bar napkin, but I learned so much from doing so that it quickly developed into a habit that required record in my writing notebook.
Given how much watching boxing has schooled me in the practice and appreciation of objective and thorough viewing, it’s fascinating to me that in the Romantic era, boxing was referred to as “the fancy,” that very faculty Samuel Taylor Coleridge contrasted to the imagination as “indeed no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; and blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word CHOICE.” By which he concurs with and expands the notion of that word at the time — “fancy” itself being merely a contraction for the word “fantasy.” But boxing’s taxing and strengthening of the imagination as a faculty to see more fully and accurately is what I’m more intrigued with. Although the truth is, we can use the imaginative mind — and our poetry — in either way or valence. That is, we can use it to try to understand and “see better” or we can use the mind to block it out and to run a kind of interference, something writers call “fancy” and therapists call “denial” and Wallace Stevens called “a violence from within that protects us from a violence without,” that is, “something that presses back against the pressure of reality.” Keats thought about this question in terms of what he coined one’s “negative capability,” that is, “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” That’s what I aim for when I’m watching and scoring a boxing match, to be capable of being present and cognizant of the uncertainty of two boxers at work, emancipated from what Liebling called the “oily-voiced announcers’” or any predetermined narratives generated by “my memories and my thousand desires.”
Which brings me to the second thing that boxing has taught me as a poet, which is to acknowledge and honor what I often refer to as duality, but is more accurately understood in this context as drama. “Every talent must unfold itself in fighting,” Oates writes, quoting Nietzsche. ‘That which is creative must create itself,” I say, quoting Keats.
“Because a boxing match is a story without words, this doesn’t mean that it has no text or no language, that it is somehow “brute,” “primitive,” “inarticulate,” only that the text is improvised in action,” clarifies Oates. “The language [is] a dialogue between the boxers of the most refined sort…” This is exactly the sort of drama Emily Dickinson describes in her retelling of the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the Angel:
A little East of Jordan,
A Gymnast and an Angel
Did wrestle long and hard —
Till morning touching mountain —
And Jacob, waxing strong,
The Angel begged permission
To Breakfast — to return —
Not so, said cunning Jacob!
"I will not let thee go
Except thou bless me" — Stranger!
The which acceded to —
Light swung the silver fleeces
"Peniel" Hills beyond,
And the bewildered Gymnast
Found he had worsted God!
While Dickinson leaves out the part recounted in Genesis, that the Angel wins the struggle by maiming Jacob’s hip, she adds the delightful detail of the Angel being in a hurry to get back to heaven in time for breakfast. But the most beautiful and provocative aspect of the poem is that the struggle between the two lasts all night long. Only a match of true equals could sustain such an extended wrestling with no clear victor — and the reader implicitly understands the intensity of such an encounter — nearly sexual, and profoundly respectful. This poetic image, the spore of this encounter, can be found in any good boxing match. Oates puts it this way:
The boxer meets an opponent who is a dream-distortion of himself in the sense that his weaknesses, his capacity to fail and to be seriously hurt, his intellectual miscalculations—all can be interpreted as strengths belonging to the Other; the parameters of his private being are nothing less than boundless assertions of the Other’s self. This is dream, or nightmare: my strengths are not fully my own, but my opponent’s weaknesses; my failure is not fully my own, but my opponent’s triumph. He is my shadow-self, not my (mere) shadow.
In a letter written to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in the spring of 1886, soon before her death, Dickinson made a salient return to the story of Jacob’s wrestling with the Angel, in which her understanding of Jacob as a figure for the poet is made explicit. She recasts the story so that Jacob “worsts” God by bestowing a blessing on the Angel instead of vice versa: “Audacity of Bliss, said Jacob to the Angel ‘I will not let thee go except I bless thee’ – Pugilist and Poet, Jacob was correct.” Like Liebling, Dickinson changed her narrative of the fight when she revisited it. And like me, she doesn’t seem to remember the ending.
ON APRIL 6, 1987 SUGAR RAY Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler fought, the only matchup that hadn’t happened yet during the era’s pantheon of boxers, which included Thomas The Hitman Hearns and Robert Duran. Hagler was a puncher, known as a bruiser. Leonard was the graceful, and even extravagant, boxer.
Young men, particularly young men of color, watched this fight on television all around the country. For many of them, the bout figured prominently in forming their attitudes about what it means to be a man, what it means to be with or without a way to speak up, what it means to be something that’s not not, what it means to bruise, and what it means to be gracefully evasive. Two of those young men became poets.
[A round of boxing is also known as a stanza. In boxing, the stanza is no place to rest.]
In the memory, all I see is my father, a tray of re-heated food on his lap, his feet in black polyester socks moving like two seals. He’s home from some long day at Roy Rogers on Cottman, the water glass full of rum and mix swirling before he sips it. His bald head. The black birthmark on his left temple pulsing when he chews.
My father’s head moving just so, the neck jutting the jaw and chin this was and that while his fork moves through air, occasionally a tiny “ooh” or “there you go.”
Hagler lowers his chin and walks ahead, trying to clip short the angles of Leonard’s slick dance. Marvin is pushing the action. That’s what he’s known for — walking the other fighter down. Pressure. Moving forward.
Look more closely.
Many of Hagler’s best punches connect — not from bulldozing through Leonard’s guard — but by Hagler’s occasional, subtle, and almost imperceptible retreat.
Leonard’s footwork makes him hard to catch in the first two rounds, like a quick shifting wind. But Hagler switches from conventional stance to his natural southpaw in the third.
By the fifth round, Leonard is already showing real signs of fatigue (he has fought most of his career at or below 147 lbs., a full weight class lower).
[The word stanza comes from the Italian meaning “resting place”.]
To get a quick breath, Leonard stops, leans forehead-to-forehead against the solid, broad-bodied Hagler.
Notice: Hagler, with his lead foot, takes one bit step back, which makes a small gap between the fighters.
Here, Leonard, still leaning, falls into where the other boxer’s body used to be. With :28 left in the fifth, Hagler fills the rift with a nasty right uppercut. It connects — hurts Leonard.
Hagler is exhibiting what’s called effective aggression. This happens time and time again throughout the fight. The TV commentator calls Hagler “plodding,” but in small increments he’s mastering the space.
The one fighter, so like my father — the bald head, the simple-mindedness, pressing against some inevitability. My father awake in the dark and home in the dark, stinking always, it seems, of fry grease. Hagler chasing and cutting off the ring, pounding the beautiful Leonard who flurries back, his hands all wings but to this day, those hands are not landing.
Nothing in sports has settled into my body the way this has — the joy at the ‘83 Sixers winning the championship, or Dr. J. landing four or five good right crosses to Larry Bird’s scowling, cheap-shot face, sure — but to this day I almost come to tears watching and re-watching this fight, knowing what’s going to happen. My father, all the while, rooting against himself.
[All the action of a round happens inside a ring.]
Sugar Ray Leonard’s camp has managed to get a baseball field — 20-by-20 — which benefits Leonard because he is going to be the fleet-footed one on the move.
The bigger ring ostensibly will make it harder for the pressure fighter, Hagler, to cut Leonard off. So the limits are in Ray’s favor before the first bell.
Twenty-five years later, boxing heads will still be arguing over the outcome: Leonard by split decision (one judge scoring the bout 118-110, giving Hagler only two rounds). And when they call Sugar Ray’s name, Gene Hackman cheers from ringside. And Chevy Chase high-fives his buddies.
[The ring determines the limits of the fighters’ action in space.]
But one of the great American traditions is to question the official record. In that version of the story, the sleek, swift fisted Leonard vanquishes the darker skinned, wide-nosed, thuggish puncher.
[A poetic stanza isn’t named for its lines of verse, but for where it lands. That is, it’s named for its resting place; it is named for its silence.]
And what fight, I wonder, did my father watch that night? Did he watch the fight I watched, and the fight I’ve watched many times since? Hagler pushing the action, persistent, landing real punches, knocking Leonard back, or staggering him (of course: Sugar Ray fought an amazing fight, and the few times I thought he was going to be knocked out he hung tight, and even returned blows); and the few times Leonard landed what to many fighters would be a real shot, Hagler’s head steady, stone. He might not have even blinked.
Leonard is talking to Hagler… Hagler is talking to Leonard
[Action determines the outcome of a fight. Speech does not.]
[Poetry is the locus of the failure of language.]
[A poem is a fight only by metaphor.]
When you're talking trash, you ain't punching. –Richard Steele, referee.
A fight is where speech fails.
A fighter’s body stands for nothing but the fighter’s body.
Did my father see, like so many people did, the whirl and flash of some beautifully spun tale, some story of the beautiful and gifted and bestowed-upon, some story he somehow imagined for himself, the luster and shimmer, the flurries, the audience smiling and shouting, in unison, “beautiful!” (Even if Leonard’s was a comeback story — especially, perhaps — retired for fear of blindness….)
The real story of his life: When will I be fired? Hagler out for his first jog in the dark, his baseball cap on the bald head. My father heading out to work in the dark, lighting his first cigarette of the day before crawling into the Corolla. Me walking to the front of the apartments to get the newspapers for my route.
Leonard, by habit, circles right. Against a southpaw, a conventional fighter should circle to his left away from the lefty’s power, each trying to keep his lead foot on the outside of the other. When Hagler switches from conventional to southpaw, he cuts Leonard off more easily, cornering him, before Leonard ducks and wheels away.
[The story isn’t made of words. The story is made of bodies. Two of them are in the ring. The words come later.]
The struggle is for space. The fighter’s struggle is to impose his will. [What’s a good fighter? What’s a good American? Excuse me. My parents aren’t from here. ] To control the story, a fighter has to let go. A fighter has to make his story convincing.
Everything that Leonard does is bigger. The flashy bolo punch that lands low, his scoot and slide. The crowd celebrates even when he misses.
[A poet’s intervention into space is speech.]
In the 11th and 12th rounds, Hagler is landing grunting blows. Leonard finishes each round with a flurry of spectacular pats and touches. They do no harm. Leonard’s aggression, you might say, is not effective. The fight is Hagler’s. The drama is not.
A boxer’s intervention into space is his body.
A fighter’s body, to everyone but the fighter, stands for something besides the fighter’s body. That’s what Hagler knew when the fight was called. That’s what he knew when he never fought again. Leonard won before he stepped in the ring — because his was the story.
And we, on our couches or EZ Chairs; our dreams stitched to them like tattered flags.