So far we have Ralph Waldo Emerson as Coach, spelling out in "The Poet" just what a poet needs to do, to say, to be. Assistant Archibald Macleish tells us a poem should not mean but be. Billy Collins agrees. We have Dante as referee, and a defensive line we're working on. The offensive line is coming along. Here are some notes so far on poets and lines that bring to mind the sport of football, how and why we watch it: these lines of color from Lisa Robertson, "a battlement trick and fast. Bright and silver. Ribbons and failings. To and fro. Fine and grand. The sky is complicated and flawed and we're up there in it, floating near the apricot frill, the bias swoop, near the sullen bloated part that dissolves to silver the next instant bronze but nothing that meaningful, a breach of greeny-blue, a syllable, we're all across the swathe of fleece laid out, the fraying rope, the copper beech behind the aluminum catalpa that has saved the entire spring for this flight, the tops of these a part of the sky, the light wind flipping up the white undersides of leaves, heaven afresh, the brushed part behind, the tumbling. So to the heavenly rustling. Just stiff with ambition we range the spacious trees in earnest desire sure and dear. Brisk and west. Streaky and massed. Changing and appearing." This is an exciting way to see and understand our world from our stadium seats, a series of initial quick gains, a few feet, and then the breakthrough: long strides, and a final tussle, quick moves.
On either side the two guards, highest paid, protecting the blind side: Milton, and Dante, if not the referee, can play here, making sure only the worthy can pass . . . fighting epic struggles . . .
Then on either side, the tackles. How is Philip Metres, I'm thinking of his "Letter to the Editor," "Dear Editor, If I understand the secret thesis of Clive James's intriguingly meandering essay "A Stretch of Verse [November 2012]," it is that poems of formidable length are not really worth the effort to memorize; rather, our attention tends to cohere around the "hit," the dazzling moment(s) within those poems. The idea that poems exist only for the page is lamentably myopic, and part of the predicament of poetry's marginalization in American culture." Yes? And Fanny Howe, tackler who thinks for the runner: "How in the dark hole can I hide/ if I can't get outside?"
Then next to him, are a running back or two (half back, full back, or two half backs like Frank Gore or LaMichael James--). Also in the back field or lined up online, someone who can both block and can be very involved in offense catching passes--what is the poetic equivalent? Dr. Seuss, Billy Collins, Yeats. What does Louis Jenkins say? How he invokes and forgives our fumbling world.
A Chip Kelly-type recruit, T.S. Eliot ("hurry up please it's time"), someone who can run as well as throw that ball of meaning. Would this be the ability to cover wide ground, to rhyme, to come up with quatrains of metaphors? Shakespeare, language trippingly on the tongue, Dr. Seuss . . .Poets who move over a lot of ground . . . Whitman, Gerald Stern, C.K. Williams: yardage.
Our color commentator: Jack Collum, for his poem, "Ecology," how he describes "Surrender in the center/ to surroundings. O surrender forever, never end her, let her blend around, surrender to the surroundings that surround the tender endo-surrender, that/tumble through the tumbling to that blue that/ curls around the crumbling, to that, the blue that/ rumbles under the sun bounding the pearl that/we walk on, talk on."
Monday morning quarterbacking, Lisa Robertson for her poem "Monday," of course: Like Jenkins, Milton, Dante, and Dickinson, she has Paradise on her mind: "First all belief is paradise. So pliable a medium. A time not very long. A transparency caused. A conveyance of rupture. A subtle transport. Scant and rare. Deep in the opulent morning, blissful regions, hard and slender. Scarce and scant. Quotidian and temperate. Begin afresh in the realms of the atmosphere, that encompasses the solid earth, the terraqueous globe that soars and sings, elevated and flimsy. . . . So free to the showing. What we praise we believe, we fully believe. Very fine. Belief thin and pure and clear to the title. Very beautiful. Belief lovely and elegant and fair for the footing. Very brisk. Belief lively and quick and strong by the bursting. Very bright. Belief clear and witty and famous in impulse. Very stormy. Belief violent and open and raging from privation. Very fine. Belief intransigent after pursuit. Very hot. Belief lustful and eager and curious before beauty.Very bright. Belief intending afresh. So calmly and clearly. Just stiff with leaf sure and dear and appearing and last. With lust clear and scarce and appearing and last and afresh."
We have poets who savor the fray: "The Fire Cycle" by Zachary Schomburg, whose energy in his prose poems is determined, insistent: he runs the ball.
Our photographer, Richard Blanco, "Photo of a Man on Sunset Drive: 1914, 2008," alive to the nuance of what is done on the field: "And so it began: the earth torn, split open/by a dirt road cutting through palmettos."
Our running back: Fanny Howe's Three Persons:" The fields are infertile/ as far as I can tell./Their winter systems/sparkle like the diamonds/that pelt Neptune." And she says something that brings to mind the connection between poetry and football, somehow: " Towards a just/and invisible image/behind each substance/and its place in a sentence/you must have been walking.
Well-defended, best/when lost from wanting./Be like grass, she told me,/ lie flat, spring up."
Then there are poems of commentary about other poets that we could well sit for two hours in the cold to listen to, from Barbara Perez, Daisy Fried, Sara Miller, Philip Metres, Laura Kasischke, taking on Wallace Stevens and Beaudelaire, I. A. Richards, the Russians. We realize the truth that poets train, reading deeply and wide, classic and contemporary. Poets work out, reading the news not only in newspapers but in earth's processes and speech and in all the things to see and think about we never see and think about, the literally unthinkable until we read them. How is this like the Superbowl, the contest of football teams in a city that has produced beloved music and poetry and theater and food? In such a game, where there is a field and lines drawn, I see a page. I see space and lines organized into quatrains and couplets and orderly forms, within which so much footwork goes on that is planned but unpredictable, where and how it's going to go, so much movement for us to perceive, it is blurry; images piled on images, and then things get sorted out, and meaning moves forward, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, hard-won, fought for, word by word. So much goes into the game, of preparation, strength-training, endurance, and it is all going on before our eyes now, on the page, where meaning is won, and somehow we share in it, the struggle and the achievement.
Poetry like football has a beginning and a middle and an end. It has defined movements within the game, and afterwards, we know that something has happened that is creative, that happened as we watched, and will never happen just this way again. We can replay it, we can look at it in slo-mo, but we are part of a way of putting oneself out there as a human being, trying to express ourselves within rules and constraints in a public arena. And every poem seems to be like this: the enemy is not another team or poet. The opposing force may not even be the voices saying, no, not you; you're not worthy. The opposing force may be the generative tension within the poet, between what one wants to have said, and what one can say, between the mind's knowledge of the poem and the poem that is written, between the silence where the wisdom grows and the breaking of it word after word on the page. The tussle is for this word, this image, this metaphor. Sometimes there is a break free moment, and we take that metaphor and move that meaning down the field, and nothing can stop us. We leap at the end, just for the sake of it. We may kneel and pray, we are so grateful. But very often, it is forward, backward, sidewards, many voices, much advice, not much gained. Mark Twain once said, I spent the morning putting in a comma, and the afternoon taking it out. That seems to me a writer's football, and yes, let's put him on the roster. Let's put everyone who shows up for the game on the roster. Let's spend our time as scouts, recruiting for our team, and read every last poem there is to read. It is a good way to spend the afternoon. May I offer you a pre-game Ravens Pie as you read? Or 49ers Biscuits?