In my last post I intended to let the readers judge my judgments for themselves, but that breaks the Crier’s long-established rule that if one will talk about it, one must be about it. So a deeper look at Priscila Uppal’s sports poems is in order.
Before that, a note: to criticize one work is not to criticize the whole artist behind that work. Uppal has been up for the Griffin, has published widely in fiction and poetry, and while I’m no expert of her work as a whole, she seems worthy of the accolades she has received. But that only makes her sports poems stand in a harsher light.
Take “Taekwon-Do: The Art of the Foot and the Hand:”
Do create a canvas of your opponent.
Do use feet as paint brushes.
Do use hands as palette knives.
Do count points as natural rhythms.
Do spar in multiple media.
Do subscribe to the school of self-control.
Do spearfinger your subject.
Do grab the muse by her ankle.
Do thrust your will into the air.
Do scissor block the critics.
Do fix your tie.
Do roundhouse the exhibition.
Do spin kick to smash your sculpture to the ground.
This exemplifies much of Uppal’s sports poems. It’s light as a feather and hinges on a gimmicky constraint that makes playfulness not easy, but inevitable. Throw in some technical terms related to the sport in question (“spar,” “Spearfinger,” “scissor block”) and substitute the usual recipient of such terms with everyday terms (“Multiple Media,” “your subject,” “the critics”) and you have your poem. “Defining Football” and “Ten Things to do with Your Baby at a Sporting Event” employ very similar formulas. The eyes tend to glaze over at the second entry of these list poems.
Uppal’s “The Women in My Family Are Boxers,” however, gestures toward a more valuable kind of sports poem:
Hard quads & black eyes
to prove it. Father gave us
Each belt on our twelfth birthdays.
And a gold ring.
We toughed it out.
Then ate our cake.
Did I mention the women in my family
are all boxers?
And the years punch back.
While we search for a title
Instead of trying to replicate the action of sport—like Harrison in parts of Hero of the Play—or playfully juxtaposing sports and non-sports subject manner, this poem delves deeper. It assumes that sports provide us with meaning, and can imply significant issues that go well beyond the play on the field. Uppal’s poem, while explicitly about boxing, is also about gender. Its end, in search for “a title/worth defending,” is wonderfully open-ended. This could be taken as a poem about female boxing, but could also be extended to consider the lack of, say, female Presidents, Prime Ministers and CEOs.
This poem carves out enough distance from the sport it centres on to allow it to be a poem that has the sport in it, but not one restrained by the immediate sensation of watching that sport, or by playing around with the sport’s terminology or rules. As I argued last time, the major obstacle to sports poems is that they cannot match the experience of sports themselves, and become redundant. So they have to find another way in. Next time, I’ll look at Andrew Faulkner, and discuss how he’s managed to pull that off in Need Machine.