poem index

collection

Poetry and Sports

While sports fans may not be widely known for their literary passions, the relationship between literature and athletic competition can be traced as far back as ancient Greece where spectator sports often included literary events as part of the festivities, and champion athletes were known to commission poets to write their victory songs. Even our own Walt Whitman was a baseball lover. Reporting for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1846, he wrote: "In our sun-down perambulations, of late, through the outer parts of Brooklyn, we have observed several parties of youngsters playing 'base,' a certain game of ball...Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms...the game of ball is glorious."

We hope this collection not only demonstrates a variety of play and seriousness, but also frames poetry itself—the craft and game of it—as a lively and reactive art form, a pastime as great as any sport.

poem

A Boy Juggling a Soccer Ball

   after practice: right foot
to left foot, stepping forward and back, 
   to right foot and left foot,
and left foot up to his thigh, holding 
   it on his thigh as he twists
around in a circle, until it rolls 
   down the inside of his leg,
like a tickle of sweat, not catching 
   and tapping on the soft
side of his foot, and juggling
   once, twice, three times,
hopping on one foot like a jump-roper 
   in the gym, now trapping
and holding the ball in midair, 
   balancing it on the instep
of his weak left foot, stepping forward 
   and forward and back, then
lifting it overhead until it hangs there; 
   and squaring off his body,
he keeps the ball aloft with a nudge 
   of his neck, heading it
from side to side, softer and softer, 
   like a dying refrain,
until the ball, slowing, balances 
   itself on his hairline,
the hot sun and sweat filling his eyes 
   as he jiggles this way
and that, then flicking it up gently, 
   hunching his shoulders
and tilting his head back, he traps it 
   in the hollow of his neck,
and bending at the waist, sees his shadow, 
   his dangling T-shirt, the bent
blades of brown grass in summer heat; 
   and relaxing, the ball slipping
down his back. . .and missing his foot.

   He wheels around, he marches 
over the ball, as if it were a rock
   he stumbled into, and pressing
his left foot against it, he pushes it
   against the inside of his right 
until it pops into the air, is heeled
   over his head--the rainbow!-- 
and settles on his extended thigh before
   rolling over his knee and down 
his shin, so he can juggle it again
   from his left foot to his right foot
—and right foot to left foot to thigh—
   as he wanders, on the last day
of summer, around the empty field.
Christopher Merrill
2001
poem

Derrick Poem (The Lost World)

I take my $, buy a pair of very bright kicks for the game
at the bottom of the hill on Tuesday w / Tone who averages
19.4 points a game, & told me about this spot, & this salesman
w / gold ringed fingers fitting a $100 dollar NBA Air Avenger
over the white part of me–my sock, my heel & sole,
though I tell him Avengers are too flashy & buy blue & white
Air Flights w / the dough I was suppose to use to pay
the light bill & worse, use the change to buy an Ella
Fitzgerald CD at Jerrys, then take them both in a bag
past salesmen & pedestrians to the C where there is a girl
I'd marry if I was Pablo Neruda & after 3, 4 blocks, I spill out
humming "April in Paris" while a lady w / a 12 inch cigar
calls the driver a facist cuz he won't let her smoke on the bus
& skinny Derrick rolls up in a borrowed Pontiac w / room
for me, my kicks & Ella on his way to see The Lost World
alone & though I think the title could mean something else,
I give him some skin & remember the last time I saw him
I was on the B-ball court after dark w / a white girl
who'd borrowed my shorts & the only other person out
was Derrick throwing a Spalding at the crooked rim
no one usually shoots at while I tried not to look his way
& thought how we used to talk about black women
& desire & how I was betraying him then creeping out
after sundown with a girl in my shorts & white skin
that slept around me the 5 or 6 weeks before she got tired
of late night hoop lessons & hiding out in my crib
there at the top of the hill Derrick drove up still talking,
not about black girls, but dinosaurs which if I was listening
could have been talk about loneliness, but I wasn't,
even when he said, "We should go to the movies sometime,"
& stopped.
Terrance Hayes
1999
poem

Baseball and Writing

(Suggested by post-game broadcasts)

Fanaticism?  No.  Writing is exciting
and baseball is like writing.
   You can never tell with either
      how it will go
      or what you will do;
   generating excitement—
   a fever in the victim—
   pitcher, catcher, fielder, batter.
	Victim in what category?
Owlman watching from the press box?
	To whom does it apply?
	Who is excited?  Might it be I?

It's a pitcher's battle all the way—a duel—
a catcher's, as, with cruel
   puma paw, Elston Howard lumbers lightly
      back to plate.  (His spring 
      de-winged a bat swing.)
   They have that killer instinct;
   yet Elston—whose catching
   arm has hurt them all with the bat—
	when questioned, says, unenviously,
   "I'm very satisfied.  We won."
	Shorn of the batting crown, says, "We";
	robbed by a technicality.

When three players on a side play three positions
and modify conditions,
   the massive run need not be everything.
      "Going, going . . . "  Is
      it?  Roger Maris
   has it, running fast.  You will
   never see a finer catch.  Well . . .
   "Mickey, leaping like the devil"—why
	gild it, although deer sounds better—
snares what was speeding towards its treetop nest,
	one-handing the souvenir-to-be
	meant to be caught by you or me.

Assign Yogi Berra to Cape Canaveral;
he could handle any missile.
   He is no feather.  "Strike! . . . Strike two!"
      Fouled back.  A blur.
      It's gone.  You would infer
   that the bat had eyes.
   He put the wood to that one.
Praised, Skowron says, "Thanks, Mel.
   I think I helped a little bit."
	All business, each, and modesty.
        Blanchard, Richardson, Kubek, Boyer.
	In that galaxy of nine, say which
	won the pennant?  Each.  It was he.

Those two magnificent saves from the knee-throws
by Boyer, finesses in twos—
   like Whitey's three kinds of pitch and pre-
      diagnosis
      with pick-off psychosis.
   Pitching is a large subject.
   Your arm, too true at first, can learn to
   catch your corners—even trouble
	Mickey Mantle.  ("Grazed a Yankee!
My baby pitcher, Montejo!"
	With some pedagogy,
	you'll be tough, premature prodigy.)

They crowd him and curve him and aim for the knees.  Trying
indeed!  The secret implying:
   "I can stand here, bat held steady."
      One may suit him;
       none has hit him.
   Imponderables smite him.
   Muscle kinks, infections, spike wounds
   require food, rest, respite from ruffians.  (Drat it!
	Celebrity costs privacy!)
Cow's milk, "tiger's milk," soy milk, carrot juice,
	brewer's yeast (high-potency—
	concentrates presage victory

sped by Luis Arroyo, Hector Lopez—
deadly in a pinch.  And "Yes,
   it's work; I want you to bear down,
      but enjoy it
      while you're doing it."
   Mr. Houk and Mr. Sain,
   if you have a rummage sale,
   don't sell Roland Sheldon or Tom Tresh.
	Studded with stars in belt and crown,
the Stadium is an adastrium.
	O flashing Orion,
	your stars are muscled like the lion. 
Marianne Moore
1961
poem

Tackle Football

Snow up to our waists and coming down still.
There was a field here once, when we began.
We marked the end zones and set up the goals.

Now nobody can even move, much less tackle.
I am Ganymede fleeing on a temple frieze.
We stand around like lovesick Neanderthals.

We’re Pompeian before Pompeii was hot.
We have the aspect of the classic dead
Or of stranded, shivering astronauts.

It was early in the era of the pause button:
We paused and paused the afternoons away
Indoors, blasting our ballistic erections

At the blurred bikinis of celebrities,
Then, splaying on the linoleum floor,
Awaited the apportioned pizza delivery.

Now, someone has paused us, or so it appears,
But they didn’t pause the snow, or the hour:
As the one gets higher, the other gets later.
Dan Chiasson
2013
poem

Like Him


I’m almost forty and just understanding my father 
doesn’t like me. At thirteen I quit basketball, the next year 
refused to hunt, I knew he was disappointed, but never 
thought he didn’t have to like me 
to love me. No girls. Never learned
to drive a stick. Chose the kitchen and mom
while he went to the woods with friends who had sons 
like he wanted. He tried fishing—a rod and reel 
under the tree one Christmas. Years I tried  
talking deeper, acting tougher 
when we were together. Last summer 
I went with him to buy a tractor. 
In case he needs help, Mom said. He didn’t look at me 
as he and the sales guy tied the wheels to the trailer, perfect 
boy-scout knots. Why do I sometimes wish I could be a man 
who cares about cars and football, who carries a pocketknife 
and needs it? It was January when he screamed: I’m not 
a student, don’t talk down to me! I yelled: You’re not smart enough 
to be one! I learned to fight like his father, like him, like men: 
the meanest guy wins, don't ever apologize.
Aaron Smith
2013
poem

The Bee

                       to the football coaches of 
                             Clemson College, 1942

One dot
Grainily shifting   we at roadside and
The smallest wings coming   along the rail fence out
Of the woods   one dot   of all that green. It now
Becomes flesh-crawling   then the quite still
Of stinging. I must live faster for my terrified
Small son   it is on him. Has come. Clings.

Old wingback, come
To life. If your knee action is high
Enough, the fat may fall in time   God damn
You, Dickey, dig   this is your last time to cut
And run   but you must give it everything you have
Left, for screaming near your screaming child is the sheer
Murder of California traffic: some bee hangs driving

Your child
Blindly onto the highway. Get there however
Is still possible. Long live what I badly did
At Clemson   and all of my clumsiest drives
For the ball   all of my trying to turn
The corner downfield   and my spindling explosions
Through the five-hole over tackle. O backfield

Coach Shag Norton,
Tell me as you never yet have told me
To get the lead out scream   whatever will get
The slow-motion of middle age off me   I cannot
Make it this way   I will have to leave
My feet   they are gone   I have him where
He lives   and down we go singing with screams into

The dirt,
Son-screams of fathers   screams of dead coaches turning
To approval   and from between us the bee rises screaming
With flight   grainily shifting   riding the rail fence
Back into the woods   traffic blasting past us
Unchanged, nothing heard through the air-
conditioning glass   we lying at roadside full

Of the forearm prints
Of roadrocks   strawberries on our elbows as from
Scrimmage with the varsity   now we can get
Up   stand   turn away from the highway   look straight
Into trees. See, there is nothing coming out   no
Smallest wing   no shift of a flight-grain   nothing
Nothing. Let us go in, son, and listen

For some tobacco-
mumbling voice in the branches   to say “That’s
a little better,”   to our lives still hanging
By a hair. There is nothing to stop us   we can go
Deep   deeper   into elms, and listen to traffic die
Roaring, like a football crowd from which we have
Vanished. Dead coaches live in the air, son   live

In the ear
Like fathers, and urge   and urge. They want you better
Than you are. When needed, they rise and curse you   they scream
When something must be saved. Here, under this tree,
We can sit down. You can sleep, and I can try
To give back what I have earned by keeping us
Alive, and safe from bees: the smile of some kind

Of savior—
Of touchdowns, of fumbles, battles,
Lives. Let me sit here with you, son
As on the bench, while the first string takes back
Over, far away   and say with my silentest tongue, with the man-
creating bruises of my arms   with a live leaf a quick
Dead hand on my shoulder, “Coach Norton, I am your boy.”
James Dickey
1967
poem

Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio

In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.

Therefore,
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.
James Wright
1959
poem

Fast Break

In Memory of Dennis Turner, 1946-1984

A hook shot kisses the rim and
hangs there, helplessly, but doesn’t drop,

and for once our gangly starting center
boxes out his man and times his jump

perfectly, gathering the orange leather
from the air like a cherished possession 

and spinning around to throw a strike
to the outlet who is already shoveling

an underhand pass toward the other guard
scissoring past a flat-footed defender 

who looks stunned and nailed to the floor
in the wrong direction, trying to catch sight

of a high, gliding dribble and a man 
letting the play develop in front of him

in slow motion, almost exactly
like a coach’s drawing on the blackboard,

both forwards racing down the court
the way that forwards should, fanning out

and filling the lanes in tandem, moving
together as brothers passing the ball

between them without a dribble, without 
a single bounce hitting the hardwood

until the guard finally lunges out
and commits to the wrong man

while the power-forward explodes past them
in a fury, taking the ball into the air

by himself now and laying it gently
against the glass for a lay-up,

but losing his balance in the process,
inexplicably falling, hitting the floor

with a wild, headlong motion
for the game he loved like a country

and swiveling back to see an orange blur
floating perfectly through the net. 

Edward Hirsch
1986