Balls in the air
Poetry and sport have more in common than we think, writes Charlotte Guest
Poet Fay Zwicky is sitting in her armchair, laughing. We are talking about writers who played sport or were physically active. Leo Tolstoy played tennis; Arthur Conan Doyle played for Portsmouth Football Club; Charles Darwin did his best thinking while walking; Haruki Murakami is a marathon runner.
We laugh because we are surprised. We don’t associate these figures of the mind with exercise, and the thought of big-bellied, bearded Tolstoy returning a serve is simply funny. But why does it surprise us? Our brains are housed in our bodies, after all.
Close your eyes and imagine a writer. What do you see? A black-and-white image of a dishevelled, cigarette-wielding bottle-waggling figure? How old are they, and is it late at night? Do they look ashen? Depressed? The stereotypical writer (or poet) is an abuser of their body, or at least neglectful of their health.
Rene Descartes thought “the extinction of the mind does not follow from the corruption of the body”. But it is a common misconception (or not, maybe) that the corruption of the body can result in better products of the mind.
Murakami makes this point in his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. People ask him why he exercises so often, as if his roles as novelist and runner must conflict.
“There’s a widely held view,” he writes, “that by living an unhealthy lifestyle a writer can remove himself from the profane world and attain a kind of purity that has artistic value.”
Now imagine a sportsperson. First, are they a man? Do they look a bit like Chad, as played by Brad Pitt, in the Coen brothers film Burn After Reading? He is the Western gym junkie example Australian philosopher Damon Young uses in his book How to Think About Exercise. Chad “is a fictional character, but we recognise him immediately: muscular, handsome, full of energy and positive thinking — and as dumb as a sack of small stones”.
In Western philosophy, the separation of mind and body is called ‘‘dualism’’. Descartes argued that the mind and body were made of two different substances.
Young summarises Descartes’ thinking on this topic, along with that of Heidegger, Nietzsche, Plato and a whole gamut of other thinkers (the philosophers’ gym is crowded).
Substance dualism is written into the way we live, dividing time between the mind and body. Many of us go to work and engage our minds, sitting in a swivel chair that will apparently kill us one day, and then, if we’re health conscious, come home and go for a run to ‘‘switch off’’ and ‘‘de-stress’’. In this way even exercise becomes about the mind. The body is treated as an apparatus that carries the head around.
The Greeks were different. In fact, it can be argued that Young’s book is an exercise in how to think more like the ancient Greeks (sans Plato). That is, to approach human existence in a more wholesome and integrated way.
All this is to say that ‘‘sport’’ and ‘‘poetry’’, in the abstract, can be read as metonyms for our separation between the body and mind. Yet once you begin to dismantle this binary it becomes unsurprising, obvious even, that discrete human endeavours such as a game of tennis and a poem share certain qualities.
To Zwicky, organised sport and poetry both require a balance between freedom of expression and restraint, between movement and constraint.
Further, a good poem and a good game (or session or workout) can be described as graceful, playful and beautiful. Both involve movement (rhythm, propulsion, forward momentum) and flow. In Border Crossings, she writes of the poet as needing muscles, “emotional, spiritual and psychic muscles that transcend the limits of the self”.
I wrote this essay shortly before Zwicky died last July, aged 83.
She never participated in sport. She was a spectator, as were many women of her generation (and ones before and after). Her engagement with sport was gendered; or rather, she felt she could not engage in sporting activities because of her gender. Football was for men; rugby was for men; running was for men.
I was a sportswoman. I was born in the 1990s and raised on outdoor activities and after- school training. Some thought I’d make a career out of it: be an Olympian. I did compete internationally in high jump once, and won.
Cross-country carnivals were glorious. My father would proudly scan his handheld camera b back and forth along the stretch of green that separated me from my opponents.
It only occurred to me recently how such intense exercise mediated my girlhood, or w womanhood. Womanhood sometimes inserted itself between me and winning: I wore tight, thick sports bras that flattened my already underdeveloped breasts; periods left me heavy and slow and so I took the pill to override them. In order to be successful — to run the fastest, j jump the highest — I needed to shed my gender. I didn’t need to be more masculine; I j just needed to be less feminine, less female.
Now I write poetry: embodied poetry, feminist poetry.
This generation is changing the narrative. Alicia Sometimes, Australian poet and sports commentator, calls this injection of women in sport (and women’s voices in sports commentary and women in the stands) the ‘‘cultural event’’ of our time. To the untrained eye, sport and poetry are not on speaking terms because it appears sport cannot speak.
The Australian Football League has been plagued with gag orders outlawing sexist, racist and homophobic language in response to instances of fan abuse. Rugby league is prone to similar dramas. And what about sledging in cricket?
Coarse, often vulgar quips constitute a gamewithin-the-game. The difference between slurs and sledging is that sledging is meant to be witty. But even then, the Top 7 Cricket Sledges of All Time web page has this at No 4: “Sometimes, verbal sledging is simply not enough. Viv Richards hit Merv Hughes for four consecutive boundaries in one single over. Merv’s response was to stop halfway down the pitch, fart loudly, and say to Viv: ‘Let’s see you hit that to the boundary!’ ’’
Sport yells, falls into silence, or looks to the body for other sounds and signs.
Despite progress that has been made in increasing women’s standing in sporting culture, professional sport remains dominated by men and a culture of hyper-masculinity. Grunts, snorts, moans, expletives emanate from the green and the stands.
And yet paradoxically, what interested Zwicky about AFL when she was young was the fact teams were made up of immigrants, and so represented different cultures. Football games in 1930s and 40s Victoria were cultural events. She remembered sneaking out to watch the local games in suburban Melbourne, “because it gave me an insight into a world outside … there was a lot of incidental hostility between the teams because they had their own private histories in their own countries”.
Are sport and poetry beautiful? In the abstract, as concepts, I’d say yes. This is not to say a particular poem or game cannot be beautiful in its own right, but rather they possess a beauty that always reaches beyond itself, to something more, a version more beautiful.
To play a game and to write a poem is to strive towards an ideal that is beautiful in its perfection. Think of Plato’s allegory of the cave: the cave’s inhabitants are only able to see the shadows of perfect forms, not the forms themselves, as they dance across the cave wall.
To stretch this a little further, I think this allegory captures something essential about the kind of beauty sport and poetry possess, through free admission of not possessing it: reaching out, tripping forward, lunging for an ideal without ever grasping it. The proverbial dangling carrot.
This kind of beauty isn’t exclusive to sport and poetry; it’s a universal trope in Western culture. Perhaps this is why we pursue things we can never perfect: for that sense of infinity. It makes us forget our mortality, like we’ll always have more time to get better, faster, stronger.
Scholar and journalist Beate Josephi once produced a show on Australian sport in poetry for the German public broadcaster Hessischer Rundfunk, which was later played on ABC Radio National’s Poetica.
Bruce Dawe’s Life Cycle, Francis Webb’s The Runner, Judith Wright’s The Surfer, Andrew Taylor’s Learning How to Win at Tennis and Wendy Jenkins’s The Diver were among the poems featured. Zwicky’s World Cup Spell, 1998, was the last poem on the list.
Josephi kindly emailed me her notes for the show. In the introduction, she writes:
“What do Australia’s poets make of sport? Do they partake in the patriotic cries, the ecstatic moment of winning? Not really. Their poems often pay tribute to dexterity, agility and skill, but they do not celebrate the moment of victory … They reflect on the encounter of body and water or body and gravity. And if the poet himself becomes involved in the sport, he tends to take the stance of the antihero, insisting on his triumphant loss.’’
Zwicky was similarly uninterested in the competitive side. Ladders and tables are dull byproducts of the industry. “I’m more interested in the playful element,” she said, “playing to play, not playing to win.” This is an edited extract of Charlotte Guests’s essay, The Thing About Sport and Poetry is That They’re Kind of Similar, in Balancing Acts: Women in Sport (Brow Books, 344pp, $32.99).
Leo Tolstoy on the tennis court: will it be war or peace?