Priscila Uppal in her official role
In “Writers and Sports,” Mordecai Richler sets the record straight: “North American literary men in general…have always been obsessed by sports.” And as Richler bears out, sports have long furnished the essayist with worthy material (and his inclusion of Joyce Carol Oates in this essay extends this beyond men).
But the sports poem is a whole other beast. Sports and poetry both facilitate creative genius, and metaphors can easily mix between the two: a pitcher’s sequence is similar to the balance of predictability and surprise a poet goes for. But that’s better grist for an essay than a poem, because the comparison is too spot on. Likewise, why poeticize a hockey deke when the deke itself already contains its own immediate aesthetic value? Yet the temptation to poetize sports remains because the poet’s intuition demands that a link between the two exists.
This country’s most famous sports poetry is from Richard Harrison’s Hero of the Play, a collection entirely devoted to hockey. This is not a bad book; it is just very mediocre. It contains lines like “This is the season Jagr will blossom: his 3rd as a pro,/ 2 Stanley Cups, a great playoffs behind him.” Later, Harrison describes Jagr “slipping the puck like a surprise confes/sion under Belfour” and that “lacking the language to describe his/own body, he is only more beautiful.” In an essay, we would say this is good description, especially the surprise confession bit, but in a poem it comes off as weak imitation. It makes me want to watch the highlight, because there’s no recreating it in the poem. Yet Harrison attempts that over and over. The result is mostly unworthy of Harrison’s hockey essays and his other poetry (like this).
More recently, Priscila Uppal has dipped into sports poetry, with far more devastating results. I intended to write a whole post about her, but that would end up being way more mean than is necessary. Suffice it to say, she’s found a reliable shtick (as “poet in residence” at the Olympics and such) that produces mostly horrible poetry (it’s all in support of athletes, which is great, but that doesn’t make the poems better). Like Harrison, who launched Hero of the Play at the Hockey Hall of Fame, it would seem Uppal is introducing poetry to a whole new audience, but I fear she might turn more people off of poetry than on.
If you tracked collections bought but hardly read, I bet Harrison and Uppals’ would be near the top of the list. You get the book, think, “OK, sports poems, these should be accessible and deep.” But they’re just accessible, and a sports performance will almost certainly remain far deeper than a poem about it.
An Olympic sports nut, blogging as ‘the curling librarian’, recently reviewed Uppal’s two recent sports collections, writing “I found it easy to understand the content as I am familiar with most of the sports.” Yet, the post continues, “poetry is lost on me” and “I am sure there is some beauty and meaning hidden in the words, but…I just don’t get it.” Actually, you do. There’s no hidden meaning you are missing, just more evidence for the general public to believe that poetry is a waste of time. In that way, a bad sports poem is like a bad inauguration poem: an introduction to poetry that makes you want to stay away. Oh well.