Balls in the air

Po­etry and sport have more in com­mon than we think, writes Char­lotte Guest

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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?

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