Title: Everything to Play For - 99 Poems About Sport
Author: John McAuliffe (editor) with a foreword by Sonia O'Sullivan and poems by Fergus Allen, Sebastian Barry, Dermot Bolger, Pat Boran, Daragh Breen, Colette Bryce, Ciaran Carson, Paula Cunningham, Pádraig J Daly, John F Deane, Patrick Deeley, Greg Delanty, Theo Dorgan, Tom Duddy, Paul Durcan, Martin Dyar, Martina Evans, Padraic Fallon, Peter Fallon, Gerard Fanning, Elaine Feeney, John Fitzgerald, Gabriel Fitzmaurice, Leontia Flynn, Tom French, Peggie Gallagher, Miriam Gamble, Alan Gillis, Michael Gorman, Robert Greacen, Vona Groarke, Michael Hartnett, Seamus Heaney, FR Higgins, Rita Ann Higgins, Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Kennelly, Michael Longley, Bryan MacMahon, Louis MacNeice, Thomas McCarthy, Iggy McGovern, Frank McGuinness, Noel Monahan, Sinéad Morrissey, Paul Muldoon, Gerry Murphy, Liam Murphy, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Mary Noonan, Conor O'Callaghan, John O'Donnell, Bernard O'Donoghue, Mary O'Malley, Caitríona O'Reilly, Frank Ormsby, David Park, Billy Ramsell, Maurice Riordan, Declan Ryan, Gerard Smyth, Matthew Sweeney, David Wheatley, Vincent Woods, Enda Wyley, and WB Yeats
Publisher: Poetry Ireland
Order: Poetry Ireland
What it is: What it says on the tin - 99 poems about sport
Strengths: Poetry offers an alternative viewpoint on a subject that prose rarely does justice to
Weaknesses: Many of the poems have only the most tenuous connection with sport
The great and the good - and the good and the not so great - of Irish poetry have been brought together in this anthology of poetry about sport. With poems covering gaelic football, hurling, camogie, handball, soccer, rugby, American football, baseball, cricket, golf, pitch-and-putt, tennis, table tennis, croquet, snooker, bowls, chunkey, shove halfpenny, marbles, chess, darts, archery, falconery, fishing, boxing, cycling, running, skiing, swimming, diving, horse racing, and the dogs you've enough here to create your own poetry Olympics (Poelympics?). With all the poets being Irish, at least we'd be sure to finish top of the medal table. Unless the Northern poets elected to play for Britain. And those born abroad handed in their Irish passports. So we'd probably really finish toward the bottom of the table after all.
The 99 poems come from 66 poets, with 16 of the poems coming from the collection's 15 female poets. Remarkably, not a one of the collected poets here is under 30. Only three are under 40. Seven are 40-something. Ten 50-something. I gave up counting how many were drawing their pension. Or dead. This sport thing, it's not a young poet's game. Nor is it a game for poets from Meath. Or Westmeath. Or Carlow. Or half a dozen other counties for that matter. I don't know whether that says something about sport in those counties or poetry. As for language: some of the poems pay homage to the cúpla focal but none are in Irish or translated from Irish. I was going to see how the different birth signs were represented but do you know what? Poets are shy about publicising their birthdays. Hallmark cards will do that to you, especially if verse is your stock-in-trade.
To the poems then. Let's start with the three poems about cycling selected by the editor here, John McAuliffe (co-director of Manchester University's Centre for Creative Writing). First there's Louis MacNeice, "Freewheeling down the escarpment past the unpassing horse / Blazoned in chalk". I did that once. Riding out by Uffington. Though I had Chesterton ringing in my ear. This was before I spent a week down in Kerry, looking after a youth hostel, with MacNeice's complete poems, a house brick of a book, to keep me company halfway up the hill each day, looking down on the hostel below. A week, an empty hillside and the complete poems, they're a good way to learn whether you like an author or not. I like MacNeice. Can't say as I like his The Cyclist though.
Least said being soonest mended I'll pass over Vincent Woods's Bicycle with just that as a comment and turn to the final wheel of McAuliffe's tricycle of cycling poems, John F Deane's Bikes. The scene is a back yard, a sort of park and ride for the bus to diverse destinations. In it are parked the rides of the commuters:
We assumed free rein
and took to peddling round the yard, the bikes
bucking like jittery donkeys at our hands. But oh
how we raced, wee riders, relishing all the while
a watchful guilt, a boldness always on the point
of tears at a gashed knee or a sideways fall
into a tangle of chain and handlebars. We earned
accumulated secrecies when the travellers returned
puzzled at fine-groomed bikes standing to attention.
All three poems in McAuliffe's unadventurous selection here hew to a stereotypical view of cycling beloved and belaboured by TV and films: riding bikes is something only children do. This McAuliffe did not need to do, there were alternative poems he could have chosen. There's another, for instance, by Deane. I'm not going to show it to you here, instead you can have this long passage from Deane in his memoir Give Dust A Tongue:
"It was late afternoon. I was supposed to be sitting over my books at the kitchen table, catechism lesson, a few sums ... But I was idling at the window and I remember being puzzled over a crucifix that was hanging to the side of the mantelpiece, the figure on the Cross unnaturally thrusting to one side, as if in a vast and awful spasm of pain. I had little sense, then, of how much the human being suffers, of how much the human being, he or she, is capable of suffering. And I was bemused, too, how the wood of the crucifix, that looked to me like a contorted small branch of a hawthorn bush, appeared to be twisted alongside its burden. Just then a man I knew from down the village came cycling past our house, coming from the direction of Cashel, and turned down the road towards his home. The afternoon was grey; there had been rain, there would be more. I saw how the handlebars of the bike suddenly twisted to one side and bike and man fell over onto the loose-stone side of the road. I was startled, a little frightened, for the man, for his fall. But he gathered himself up rather quickly, and gathered up the bike, too, though he almost fell over on top of it before he got it upright. I could see him hesitate, then decide he would push the bike up the slight incline and not attempt to ride it. I could see his hair blowing like straw-wisps in the breeze; I saw his hand on the chrome bar of the bike, big and knuckled and fierce. He staggered as he began to walk, holding the bike out from him lest it buck like a wild ass, and kick him. He was drunk! I knew it at once, for it was not the first time I had seen this man fall about the place, even in the middle of the afternoon.
"He moved cautiously now, though he could not hold a straight line along the road. At last I saw him stop again, having reached the top of the incline. He mounted, warily, like a cowboy in our old films who would try to tame an unbroken stallion. He got himself on the saddle and the bicycle moved, shakily, forward, veering eerily from side to side, the man's long brown coat flapping against the cross-bar, striking against the spokes of the back wheel, his route now the longest distance between points. I held my breath as the bike gathered speed and suddenly he was heading for the left-hand side of the road; he cycled straight off and down into the drain, falling, bike and all, tumbling backside over bars into what was a deep and wet drain down below Lineen's stores. In the long interval before his resurrection onto the road - before he abandoned the bike and headed off, still staggering, relying on the safer use of his own limbs - I remember turning to that twisted figure on the crucifix and knowing that my heart and soul uttered a prayer that was probably one of the truest prayers I have said in my life. Many, many years later I remembered that man as I stood before a painting in the church in Orvieto, Italy, Signorelli's masterful 'Resurrection of the Flesh', where naked humans are climbing stiffly out of the soil, some of them still reduced to their twisted skeletons, answering the calling trumpets of the angels."
There's the barest hint of Alfred Jarry's The Crucifixion as an Uphill Bicycle Race about that story and, fittingly, it compacted down into a poem for Deane, Mercy, in his Manhandling the Deity collection. Given that Deane founded Poetry Ireland - the publishers of this volume of verse - maybe picking two from him would have seemed wrong (others, obviously, you can get away with selecting multiple poems from).
And maybe there's good reason to stay away from Seamus Heaney (there's already four of his here for other sports) and Samuel Beckett (a poet notoriously difficult to get reproduction rights for) and Derek Mahon (none of whose poems feature here). But what of Rita Ann Higgins?
I liked the way
got off her bike
to the side
while the bike
was still moving
graceful as a bird.
Or Ann Zell's No Quarrel With The Wind?
Cycling up from the Westlink
each turn of the pedal
was a private battle
fought against unseen odds
until I came abreast
of an old man in a grey duncher
upright as an Irish dancer
cycling home in low gear
easy as a summer breeze
or a skater on solid ice
or a hard lesson
You can say that those poems are not about cycling as a sport but they do have bikes in them and, throughout this collection, as tenuous a connection as that to a sport is more than enough. But there is a poem that's properly about cycling as a sport, Davoren Hanna's poem about Stephen Roche, which isn't just about ‘merely' riding a bicycle:
I listened to the roar of victory in my ears
Inch by painful inch I rode with him
plummetting downhill, swerving, gliding, rising
with his wry Dublin humour rolling in my spokes.
Satin ribbon roads slipped under my wheels,
but undaunted came I to vanquish all doubt
riding in triumph onto the Champs Élysées.
Whatever you think about that, that's no worse than some of the poems about other sports chosen by McAuliffe.
So. Three poems about cycling, only one of them firing my fuse in any fashion. Thankfully I've still got Candlestick's Ten Poems About Bicycles.
What of the rest of the collection? There's a Paul Durcan (sort of like an Irish Alan Bennett, only less butch) that I've long liked and which I think works as a poem about sport (and not about sport at the same time):
It was my knowing
That you were standing on the sideline
That gave me the necessary motivation -
That will to die
That is as essential to sportsmen as to artists.
There's humour, such as Elaine Feeney writing about Ryan Giggs and love unrequited:
I should have turned up at his door
And asked him for a ride
Or married his brother.
There's beauty in an image, such as in Caitríona O'Reilly's The Curée (a poem about falconry which feels more like Thom Gunn than it does Ted Hughes):
Her prize the marrow from a wing-bone
in which she delights, her spurred
stained gold-vermilion -
little angel in her hangman's hood.
John O'Donnell writes about golf as a litany of things that go wrong - "Hooked. Sliced. Topped. Shanked. Pulled." - but ends with this:
And - sometimes - the little click when things go right
The sweet sound that keeps you coming back.
Meanwhile Dermot Bolger captures the sport in a stanza:
You watched your ball rise, like a starling taking fright,
To get lost against the blueness of an evening skyline,
Where you were lost too, bewitched by the arc of its flight.
Or maybe he doesn't capture the sport. I don't play golf and so don't know what matters in it and maybe getting lost in the beauty of a ball arcing through the sky is a clichéd take on the sport. That's the problem with some of these poems: they're poets trying to think about the way sports people think. Take this from Theo Dorgan:
On a morning like this, a girlchild out early would be thinking of glory -
the tall bowl of the stadium, black roar of the crowd, the red track,
the bend to the straight, the finish just visible through the haze.
Easy to dream of gold, olive-wreath, ceremony and applause,
the tricolour snapping to the arc-lights overhead, brass blaze of trumpets -
harder to rise to these winter mornings, these punishing hills.
That's supposed to have been inspired by Sonia O'Sullivan. Though I think it owes more to Chariots of Fire.
The better use of sport has the poet as the spectator, one with the reader. Take MacNeice and his Rugby Football Excursion:
Lansdowne Road - the swirl of faces, flags
Gilbert and Sullivan music, emerald jerseys;
Spire and crane beyond remind the mind on furlough
Of Mersey's code and Rome's.
Eccentric scoring - Nicholson, Marshall and Unwin
Replies by Bailey and Daly;
Rugs around our shins, the effortless place-kick
Gaily carving the goalposts.
In the eighty or so years since that was written about the only thing that's changed is the Gilbert and Sullivan.
All told, then, Everything To Play For is a bit of an oddity, a collecton of poems about sport that could have something for everybody but plays for soft points when it should be taking risks and shooting for goal. But it does have some wonderful poems.