The great Greek lyric poet Pindar is not only recognized for contributing the Pindaric ode to the poetic tradition, but also the epinicia, or triumphal ode, one of the earliest poems written in celebration of sport. Though the creation of the epinician ode is credited to Simonides of Ceos, Pindar was the form’s greatest practitioner. These odes were written to honor a victor in one of the Hellenic games, and were intended to be sung in a procession for the winner, typically upon his return to his home city. Among his epinicia, Pindar wrote 14 "Olympian odes," in honor of victors in the ancient Olympics. These odes were syntactically complex, and usually connected the victor with a great hero of the past, such as Achilles.
For example, in "For Hieron of Syracuse, Winner in the Horse-Race," written in honor of the eponymous competitor’s Olympic victory, Pindar wrote:
...of prizes in the games thou art fain, O my soul, to tell, then, as for no bright star more quickening than the sun must thou search in the void firmament by day, so neither shall we find any games greater than the Olympic whereof to utter our voice: for hence cometh the glorious hymn and entereth into the minds of the skilled in song, so that they celebrate the son of Kronos, when to the rich and happy hearth of Hieron they are come.
Centuries later, Marianne Moore looked to sports—baseball in particular—for a sense of her culture’s spirit. In her famed poem, "Baseball and Writing," Moore seeks correspondence between this still-young, rule-bound sport with the practice of writing, a good fit for the formally rigorous and exacting poet. She begins, "Fanaticism? No. Writing is exciting / and baseball is like writing."
Continuing in the rich tradition of American poems on the American Pastime, Donald Hall, who incidentally has written extensively on Moore’s verse, wrote the poem "Baseball" and included it in his book The Museum of Clear Ideas. Following a formal heuristic as complex as baseball’s epic rulebook, the poem is comprised of twelve "innings" that are subdivided into nine stanzas of nine lines, each line containing nine syllables.
Addressed to poet and musician Kurt Schwitters, famed for his collages, Hall's "Baseball" poem assembles like a collage itself. It brings together the totems and indelible images of baseball’s storied history, such as Fenway Park, Astroturf, and Carlton Fisk, whose home run in the twelfth inning of game six of the 1975 World Series had been, until 2004's World Series victory, one of the few treasured moments in Red Sox history.
Sports poems, especially those on baseball, can be found in numerous anthologies, websites, and occasionally even in the pages of magazines like Sports Illustrated. But these poems aren’t limited to high-profile sports like baseball or events such as the Olympics. In the following very abbreviated list, there are poems on fly-fishing, pick-up basketball, and boxing, among other sporting interests.
"The Jogger on Riverside Drive, 5:00 A.M." by Agha Shahid Ali
"The Fish" by Elizabeth Bishop
"Jack Johnson Does the Eagle Rock" by Cornelius Eady
"The Boxers" by Andrew Feld
"A Boy Juggling a Soccer Ball" by Christopher Merrill
"The Racer’s Widow" by Louise Glück
"Reading Plato" by Jorie Graham
"Baseball" by Donald Hall
"Fast Break" by Edward Hirsch
"Jackie Robinson in Sportsmen’s Park, 1949" by John Keene
"Slam, Dunk, & Hook" by Yusek Komunyakaa
"To Swim, To Believe" by Maxine Kumin
"Baseball and Writing" by Marianne Moore
Epinicion odes of Pindar
"The Pike" by Theodore Roethke
"Sporting Life" by Jack Spicer
"Casey at the Bat" by Ernest Lawrence Thayer
"Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio" by James Wright
"Whoso List to Hunt" by Thomas Wyatt