By Jacob Silkstone
Before I became a literary snob, my dream was always to be a sports journalist. The evidence is collected in my parents’ attic and in the seldom-explored corners of my room: pages and pages of reports on imaginary sporting events, written by imaginary journalists; my earnest reports on school cricket and football matches I’d been involved in, published in the local paper; the dream dutifully recorded in the ‘where I’ll be in ten years’ section of my secondary school yearbook.
Then I went to a college where people didn’t ridicule the idea of reading Nabokov or writing poetry, and those became my new literary passions. I wrote a sequence of mawkish, syntactically unconvincing sonnets for a girl who was sensible enough never to speak to me again, and managed to get a place on a university creative writing course. Sports journalism suddenly seemed too much like hack work, and the files of reports began their rather funereal procession towards the attic.
But why shouldn’t sport and poetry be compatible? Watching Tom Daley’s celebration after winning a medal last night, screaming at the TV with my sister as Mo Farah pulled away from the rest of the field, unashamedly crying when Gemma Gibbons whispered ‘I love you, Mum’… If, as Wordsworth wrote in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, all good poetry really begins with ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’, then sport is as strong a starting point as any.
What I’ve been watching over the past fortnight is the result of combining talent with supreme dedication, combining small natural/genetic advantages with the thousands of hours of practice which are needed to make the most complex activities seem straightforward. Farah’s final lap sprint to gold was years in the making, but so was the opening paragraph of Lolita – why should the sporting triumph of a British athlete in a sport dominated by Kenyans and Ethiopians be more or less admirable than the literary triumph of a Russian writer in a language that was not (initially) his own? Both feats are, perhaps, equally awe-inspiring.
Sport, at the highest level, is epic, and yet sport is seldom regarded as a subject fit for great poetry. Off-hand, there’s Don Paterson’s Nil Nil, which contains a ‘fifty-year slide’ out of greatness and ‘into Sunday football’, there’s a George Szirtes poem about Preston North End in terza rima, and there are the old jingoistic pieces which vaguely connect the ‘spirit of the game’ with the greatness of the Empire: ‘Vitai Lampada’, ‘If’ (‘If you can meet with triumph and disaster/ And treat those two imposters both the same’ is carved above Centre Court, where Andy Murray won his gold medal last week)…
There’s also a new Olympic poem from Carol Ann Duffy, published in yesterday’s Guardian. It’s an attempted rallying cry (‘We are on our marks. We are all in this together’) which ultimately falls short of being inspirational and swerves out of its lane into the field of cliché. ‘Sun gold’ is a drab metaphor, while ‘for every medal earned/ we want school playing-fields returned’ is bluntly didactic. ‘Bradley Wiggins, side-burned, Mod, god’ falls embarrassingly short of doing justice to the preternatural fitness required to achieve a Tour de France/Olympic double.
Is it churlish to criticise Duffy? Poetry, and modern British poetry in particular, is deeply uncomfortable with the idea of being inspirational. South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup winners were famously inspired by W.E. Henley’s ‘Invictus’, but I’ve yet to meet a poet who takes ‘Invictus’ at all seriously. The best poetry thrives on subtlety, on leaving itself open to multiple rereadings, whereas the best inspirational writing relies on communicating a simple message as emphatically as possible. And yet the effect of reading a powerful poem can be as visceral as the effect of watching a great sporting performance… There are myriad points of connection between great sport and great writing.
Why, then, the lapse into cliché when writing about sport? Watch any Olympic athlete being interviewed and you’ll be tempted to conclude that sport simply transcends words: time and time again, the latest gold medal winner shakes his or her head and says something like ‘Words can’t describe how that felt, but I’ll try my best. It was unbelievable!’
Exactly this sort of banal insight into how greatness really feels is addressed by David Foster Wallace in an essay on the tennis player Tracy Austin.
‘To be a top athlete, performing, is to be that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have a hard time seeing in ourselves… We want to know them, these gifted, driven physical achievers. We too, as audience, are driven: watching the performance is not enough. We want to get intimate with all that profundity…’
And how do the top athletes respond to that craving for intimacy? Wallace sights a few examples from Austin’s autobiography:
‘…on her epiphany after winning the US Open final: ‘I immediately knew what I had done, which was to win the US Open, and I was thrilled.’
…on the psychic rigors of pro competition: ‘Every professional athlete has to be so fine-tuned mentally.’
…meditating on excellence: ‘There is that little bit extra that some of us are willing to give and some of us aren’t. Why is that? I think it’s the challenge to be the best.’’
Austin is about as effective at putting her thoughts into words as Carol Ann Duffy would be at running the 100m hurdles, or Martin Amis would be at hurling the javelin. After spinning the problem out to essay length, David Foster Wallace proposes a solution:
‘The real, many-veiled answer to the question of what goes through a great player’s mind as he stands at the center of hostile crowd-noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game might well be: nothing at all.’
Greatness, in sporting terms, might have to involve the rare ability to switch off that nagging inner voice which is so frequently prone to doubt, to overcome self-consciousness and the fear of failure by falling back on a system of thinking swaddled in trivialities and cliché. The moment a great athlete begins to analyse their success may, in fact, be the moment at which that success becomes impossible to repeat. Deep thought and supreme sporting achievement may be completely incompatible.
In that sense, sport and poetry occupy separate worlds, but the possibility of intersection is left open. Surely a writer can attempt to emulate the training and the absolute focus of the best athletes, even if the single-mindedness (or empty-mindedness) necessary to convert a crucial penalty isn’t necessary in order to write a poem. Is now the time to return to that old dream and try, once again, to apply sport to writing?
The author is Poetry Editor and Book Critic for The Missing Slate.