A Poetry Super Bowl Roster Part II: Defensive Lines

A crowd looks at the Roman numerals for NFL Super Bowl XLVII as they they float on the Mississippi River Saturday, Feb. 2, 20
A crowd looks at the Roman numerals for NFL Super Bowl XLVII as they they float on the Mississippi River Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, in New Orleans. The city will host the football game between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

While our nation sits rapt before a tale of two brothers for our national ritual of a football game, I'm thinking of a roster of poets for a Super Bowl. Football gives us a way to think about what's going on in the field of poetry, where it seems there is equivalent attention to rules and feats of flight, of heist and heft, poetic feet, referees and judges, color commentary (known as criticism -- and definitely needed). I have suggested Emily Dickinson as a wide receiver: her poem "I dwell in Possibility" ends with an image of her "spreading wide my narrow hands to gather Paradise." In her poems the ball is tossed, things are fumbled, and victory and defeat abound. But it's not about how poets write about football, so much as how the way they write can be illuminated by imagining their playing positions for the line up -- line up?

Here are notes for what I'm thinking for the defensive cohort.


For the defensive ends, two outside positions, we need a poetic moxie that is strong, powerful, but also agile, fast, athletic; they have to run around however they can, plow through, or go around, fake out the offensive lineman, go in and try to tackle the QB behind the line of scrimmage: Gerald Stern? His prose poetry is massive but lithe. He's an outsider. Walt Whitman? "I am large, I contain multitudes." But he's sinewy and moves us fast as rushing water accumulating velocity in his rhythmic surges. Gertrude Stein, outsider, composed force organizing nouns lined up together as defense against the rangy verbs, whose phrases and sentences are supersize and come at us again and again, but who moves within the line with fancy footwork.

Interior linemen:

The defensive tackle rushes the passer: pure brawn, this position is also very athletic. C. K. Williams? Allen Ginsberg? The bulk length of the poetry, yet how it moves on the field, leaps, hurtles. Wallace Stevens: so obscure you can't get through him (In "The Emperor of Ice Cream," "Call the roller of big cigars,The muscular one, and bid him whip/In kitchen cups concupiscent curds./Let the wenches dawdle in such dressAs they are used to wear, and let the boysBring flowers in last month's newspapers. Let be be finale of seem.The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.)--take that, enemy of fierce speech! Or Proust (six or is it nine volumes? And how many lines as one sentence?), or James Joyce ("the ineluctable modality of the visible," and ditto long sentences). Moving but immovable, dense, a fortress of a line. A line of lines.

Three or four linebackers, who have to stop the run -- the offense is trying to block them, and they have to cover the receivers who are going out for the short pass. Carl Sandburg, the "broad shoulders of Chicago." Nikki Giovanni, her feisty zest! Lucille Clifton. And the "Mad Farmer" Wendell Berry (whose wily fox eludes those chasing him).

The third line of defense, two cornerbacks, trying to prevent the QB from passing to wide receivers. Nikki Giovanni here, too: "I mean, I can fly." She can hurtle, right over the pack, into the end zone~! And Stephen Crane, "because it is my heart." He will eat his own heart: he has a tough spirit.

Safety, the last resort, who picks up the wide receiver who is going long (it has to be Whitman)... this could be William Blake, "kiss[ing] the joy as it flies." Or in the fact that the safety has to respond quickly when the wide receiver makes a cut, leaps high, jumps, knocks the ball away and prevents the other team from scoring (T.S. Eliot) -- this leaping power is e.e. cummings, the "leaping greenly spirit of green," who takes care of business at the end of the sonnet with a couplet, turning it around, upending everything on top of the field. Ringer:

Muhammad Ali as a flashy running back, that zesty charisma, prima donna, his poems -- composed for the occasions -- "sting like a bee."

For offense:

QB: So one would be Tennyson -- his Ulysses, the person who plans and carries out the victory plan and conquers the obstacles; he has to react and respond to what the defense puts up as barriers, he has to conquer, has to be quick, in his thinking and response, and this really calls for Homer herself/himself (I think the jury is out on this one). Homer for speed of mind, creative problem-solving on the spot. Look how Odysseus outwits the Cyclops who's much larger and seemingly invincible. He creates a strategy for taking out the Cyclops' eye and tells him he's "Nobody." When the Cyclops yells for help and says that "Nobody" is attacking him, "nobody" comes to help. Odysseus escapes. He scores. And he makes it to the end-zone, first down after first down.

The Kicker: For kicking off and punting, kicking field goals, very precise, who more precise than Alexander Pope? His couplets, the tension in the caesura, the rhymes, the symmetry of motion. Offensive line:

The center, who hikes it to QB, sees how teams are lining up, very smart. How about Laura Kasischke? She takes on Wallace Stevens, has a sense of who's who and how they go, a humble opinion: "I know only too well that it is my own failings as a reader, a thinker, a poet, and a human being that I don't like the work of  Wallace Stevens." Or Daisy Fried, who takes into account all the styles in a vigorous analysis. "All My Pretty Hates: Reconsidering Charles Baudelaire: "I'm writing this in Paris, so, from my many poetic aversions ("all my pretty hates," to quote Dorothy Parker): Charles Baudelaire, oozing with decay, pestilence, and death." Or Lisa Robertson: "We range the spacious fields..."

More notes for offense forthcoming in Part III. Scout reports coming in. What do you think? Check out The Poetry Slow Down, Sunday Noon-1 p.m., KRXA 540AM (Podcast: BarbaraMossberg.com). Pre-gaming with Baudelaire, Neruda, Li Po, and Bukowski. And stay tuned for recipes for Raven Pie and Forty-Niner Biscuits!