Sports Poems: An Oxymoron?

By Chloe Firetto-Toomey

Sports and poetry? The words present an inherent conflict; the mind verses the body’s endurance. “Poets are not good at sports,” says Collins, stirring a murmur of laughter from the audience at the Key West Literary Seminar on Friday.

Mohamed Ali wrote poems! Who knew?

Poets, often athletically inferior, present their grace in the movement of words. It is a “strained likeness,” Collins confesses: the sonnet form with 14 boxed lines presents boundary lines representative of a tennis or basketball court.

Poets, he professes, major in death: the examination of the human experience. Death is what rouses the poet to get out of bed and walk to the window. Sports, (like sex) delays death.

Poets challenge invisible opponents. George Plimpton wrote: “The smaller the ball the better the writing about the sport.” Whether language plays or balls play, the sports poem comments on subjects of mortality and the examination of the games of life.

The poem “Catch” by Robert Francis presents a word basic to sports; the poet throws and the reader catches—words play and language plays: “plumbs and peaches” are metaphors for racial transcendence within the arena of sports.

As sports transcends the individual, so does the sports poem transcend the game. Yet time is a unifying element in both sports and poetry: athletic abilities, the diminishment of the body, expressed with wit and lament in David Hilton’s poem “Try to Turn in My Jock.” In it he writes, “feel left calf turn to stone…ankle at right angle…29 and getting fat, should think of better things to do. But shit. The shot goes in.”

This is one of many that Collins recited; he offered a mixtape of poems. Another, by Will Chamberlain, traverses witty rhymes: “trim in birth and limb…old age is grim.” A poem about the runner Maze Winston explores the language of balls and play, and how the game is about “home” and “run.”

“Funny things happen when poets begin to write about sports,” Collins says. He reads on: “Jump Shooter” by Denis Trudell, “ Football” by Lewis Jenkins; he reads a poem about “Angels” both metaphorical and a literal team name: “prayer throbbing in my throat” as the speaker cheers for her team.

Perhaps “Old Timer’s Day” by Donald Hall offered the line that most lingers: “Best to be an alive farmhand than dead…To observe the ruin of even the greatest body.”

Chloe Firetto-Toomey is the winner of the 2020 Scotti Merrill Award for Poetry. She is an English-American poet and essayist, and teaches at Florida International University and Everglades Correctional Institution.

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