The Poetry Of Sports With Former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky

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Every year we offer our listeners quasi-poetic takes on football. In fact, Super Bowl Haiku has become one of the most popular segments on Only A Game. Here's Bill Littlefield's all-time favorite:

Silly coach … screaming.
You change nothing. The call stands.
But your heart explodes.

But the connection between sports and poetry runs much deeper than our silly attempts at haiku. To discuss the ties, former United States Poet Laureate — and long-time friend of Only A Game — Robert Pinsky joined Bill Littlefield on stage at the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, Mass. for the OAG 20th Anniversary Live Show.

BL: Have you a sports-related poem to share with us?

RP: I have two super-short poems, and they do the two things we tend to do in writing about sports, which is laugh and cry. This first one is one of the oldest poems ever in the whole Western culture. It's from the Greek anthologies. It's an epitaph -- "On Apis the Prize Fighter."

To Apis the boxer

His grateful opponents have erected

This statue

Honoring him

Who never by any chance hurt one of them.

[Crowd laughs]

It does suggest there are no new jokes. Easy to picture that in a new column. The other one is more tears. It's by a great poet — James Wright, born [1927], published this poem in the '60s,  "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.

Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.

He could write.

BL: He certainly could.

George Plimpton had a theory about writing and sports. He said, “the smaller the ball, the better the writing.” So George Plimpton's theory was there was a lot of good golf writing. And there was a lot of good baseball writing. Not so much good bowling writing, not so much good medicine ball writing. Does this feel right to you or is this kind of capricious and arbitrary?

RP: I keep thinking [Bill's] going to bleed into a locker-room joke about the size of balls. [laughs] You're making me nervous.

BL: [Laughing] Well, you're making me nervous! I had nothing like that in mind at all.

RP: I have nothing to say about golf writing because, forgive me, I just have no use for golf whatsoever. I think it's stupid.

I love basketball. I love baseball. I love football. Somehow the team sports that my dad played and my grandfather played and that I played — more ineptly than thou — those are the sports that have meaning to me. And there has been some good basketball writing in Boston. I mean, you had [the Boston Globe's] Bob Ryan here that you were talking to. ... So no, I don't go along with [Plimpton, but] clearly baseball's the most literary.

This segment aired on May 17, 2014.


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