Once a year, in March, every American wants to be a poet.
At least those glued to their televisions sets for the three weekends of the NCAA basketball tournaments. It’s why March is synonymous with Madness, the month in which much of America is obsessed with college basketball.
William Wordsworth, who played point for the 19th Century Romantics, defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” Wordsworth penned poems a half century and longer before basketball was invented in 1891, but his definition is the best explanation I’ve found for why even those Americans who don’t play or watch basketball care deeply for three weeks, 130 games. (67 games for the men, 63 for the women)
It’s why we leap up off the couch when an impossible, almost-half-court-chunk floats through the net to win a game. For that moment, we too levitate, like the ball, part from a mortal body. In symbolic spirit, we rush onto the court to embrace teammates and fellow fans. And at least in the early rounds, it’s with the belief that the moment will lead to more. And more. It’s all about the dopamine dump.
Basketball-induced dopamine is my drug of choice. I was born in Tobacco Belt North Carolina the year after UNC took the 1957 title –– beating Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas in triple overtime. My first pair of rubber pants broadcast “I’m Behind the Heels” though I ended up playing in college for rival Wake Forest. My claim to fame may be playing in the first Women’s Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament in 1978. I never had much of a jump shot, but I can still pass well, time a mean pick and have been playing coed pick-up hoops in New York City for 30 years. My favorite Mother’s Day surprise: a t-shirt with a photo of me blocking out two bigger guys for a rebound.
And why is this drug more powerful in March for insiders and outsiders alike? My theory hinges on a video clip basketball fans know well: N.C. State Coach Jim Valvano, moments after an improbable win in the 1983 championship, stunned by joy, running in circles like he is going to hug each and every one of us, all in the next minute.
In March, the pool of people to hug, to high-five is just so much bigger. All of a sudden those gushing about a give-and-go play the night before are gabbing with co-workers who in February would think the talk was about ordering lunch. It’s shared and ordered mass ritual that promotes ecstatic connection. Like poetry.
Wordsworth’s teammate, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, had something to say on this: “poetry, –– “the best words in their best order." Which is what millions of us will be seeking when we bet our brackets. That our ordering of the best teams in the best order will make us soar. Some hope that our discernment of merit will make magic. That our wisdom will march our teams into the alliterative aristocracy: the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight, the Final Four.
President Barack Obama, our three-point-shooter in chief, unveils his brackets on national television on ESPN. Obama hasn’t picked a men’s winner since his first year when he correctly tapped the University of North Carolina, a key state in his electoral count. Obama scrimmaged with the Tar Heels during the campaign because some smart strategist knew the other basketball powerhouse in the state, Duke, skews Republican. Obama picked the women’s winner right once too, the Connecticut Huskies in 2010. Nothing risky in those top-seed choices.
“Surprised by joy,” to rework a Wordsworth line, is a big part of the fun. In a single-game elimination tournament, there are inevitable surprises. We all like to root for underdogs –– the Davidsons, the Butlers and George Masons that make a run. We know there’s no science to surprise; we know it might even be us. Here’s a tip for a basketball know-nothings: try the perceived pecking order of mascots. If the Wofford Terriers beat a powerhouse like the Kansas Jayhawks, suddenly your boss’ boss might know your name.
All you got to get right is six games and “One Shining Moment,” the song that closes out the championship, is about you, is the “one shining moment, you reached for the sky.” The first verse is all hard work and perspiration, a “best words, best order” disciplined approach to craft. The second verse blends in adversity, with annual video of wrenching injuries and missed shots.
It’s the bridge lines of the song, “Feel the beat of your heart/ feel the wind in your face” that CBS Sports counts on to turn on the tears. Romantic lines that could be pulled from a Wordsworth moment, though granted not set in an arena of 50,000 screaming fans. Here's the montage for Obama's bracket winner.
I’m convinced Wordsworth, who labeled golf “a day spent in a round of strenuous idleness,” would have loved basketball as “Strange fits of passion have I known/And I will dare to tell.” In fairness, CBS would be overstepping to personify Wordsworth’s “impatient as the Wind,” with drive after drive toward the basket. Or Wordsworth hearts, “the breathings of your heart,” with players thumping their chests.
But can’t you just picture Wordsworth and a buddy comparing their brackets over a beer. Crowing over wins, lamenting losses: “Not without hope we suffer and we mourn.”Appreciating as his fellow poet Coleridge noted, “Nothing is so contagious as enthusiasm.”
Catherine Woodard has played coed, pick-up basketball in New York City for three decades. Her poems have appeared in Poet Lore, Southern Poetry Review, RHINO and other journals. In 2011, Woodard was the featured poet at UnshodQuills.com, co-published Still Against War/Poems for Marie Ponsot and was a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She will be a 2012 fellow at the Hambidge Center in Georgia and is a board member of the Poetry Society of America. Woodard is a former president of Artists Space, one of the nation’s oldest spaces for emerging visual artists. Woodard has a MFA in poetry from the New School University and MS in journalism from Columbia University.
Find out more about Catherine Woodard and read her poetry and journalism here.