Today The Los Angeles Review of Books and The Best American Poetry bring you Olympic coverage of Long Distance Swimming by Jake Adam York and Tennis by Matthea Harvey.
The 1500-Meter Freestyle (and The Long Poem)
By Jake Adam York
This hasn’t happened yet. You won’t see this until Saturday, until Sunday, because you, like a swimmer, have to warm up to this, to build the capacity for endurance, from the gasp of the 100M freestyle (47 seconds or less) to a race that will last more than 14 minutes.
When the buzzers sound, there will be almost a mile of water ahead of the swimmers, 30 laps in a 50-meter pool—a “metric mile.” Most of the short events will be done. You will be ready to watch this. Anything longer is either beyond the threshold of human attention
or so far beyond the threshold of human endeavor there wouldn’t be enough people to have a meaningful race. There aren’t many people who do this, who want to or can, and, it would seem, not many people who will watch this.
I trained for this event, unknowingly, my entire
high-school swimming career but only once swam it competitively, in an exhibition heat at a YMCA Tri-State meet, in the Spring of 1989, the first time there were enough swimmers interested in this length. I would have given every 200M butterfly ribbon over for another chance at this. And another.
This is not a sprint. But it’s also not exactly not a sprint. You can’t keep a short-sprint pace for this length of time, but you have to open hot and finish hot. You need to be able to settle in, in the middle, and save something for the end.
The World Record for the 100M Freestyle is 46.91. Using the Haskell scale, this is 47 seconds at a heartrate of 180-200 beats per minute. If this could be extended linearly, someone could complete the 1500M in 11:43. But this is impossible.
The physiological problem is this: after four minutes
of maximum effort, four minutes of anaerobic work, the muscles generate enough lactate to begin choking themselves. Falling back into aerobic effort allows the muscles to move off this waste.
The 1500M World Record is 14:34.14 — a pace of 58.267 seconds per 100M, 25% slower than the 100M World Record pace. The difference, of 12 seconds per 100M, is a graph of the lactate threshold, the moment of acidosis, when your effort creates more lactate than your blood can move.
The whole race has the swimmer right on that line between the aerobic and the anaerobic, right on the lactate threshold, ready to move into high burn in the final laps.
Part of what you’re learning to do in any sport is how to manage your body. In the 1500,
you work in the upper end of the aerobic, learning almost to give too much.
Or how, after a visit to an osteopath, to manage the slow curving of my spine that’s begun to show in the x-rays. The therapists say swimming’s a good way to take some stress off
the skeleton, build the muscles that can keep me from getting more crooked, so what began extracurricular becomes more serious, a way to avoid the brace or the spinal rod.
Like Johnny Weissmuller swimming against his polio, I look for ways to spend more and more time in the water.
Now you’re over 500 meters in, beyond the distance of the other Olympic events. Yes, you can hold a sprint, or near-sprint, for 500 meters. But after that, you’ve got to back off. This is the middle of the race. You’re cruising, but you’re also holding back—moving yet waiting.
This is where you have to concentrate. Because all these laps can come to seem alike. You’re looking out ahead of yourself. You can see your arms, your hands, but not much else. At times, the flicker of a competitor in the periphery, but mostly lane-lines. The world is noise.
And therefore quiet. This is where you have to concentrate, making time meaningful as you’re trying to beat time. You move by memory, recreating the beat of a Roland 808 or a heavy-metal drummer in your ears, your legs. The more BPMs, the better. Planet Rock or South of Heaven.
You’ve memorized lyrics that in any other context will seem insipid (because they are), but this is your soundtrack, your rhythm.
Iron Maiden’s “The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Runner”:
Keep the pace, hold the race
Your mind is getting clearer
You're over halfway there
But the miles they never seem
As if you're in a dream
Not getting anywhere…
I see a beautiful gigantic swimmer swimming naked through the eddies of the sea,
His brown hair lies close and even to his head, he strikes out with courageous arms, he urges himself with his legs,
I see his white body, I see his undaunted eyes…
This is how you keep from losing it in the whiteness of the white noise.
You write your own raps, lyrics, poems. With each race, you remember more words, write more.
Moby-Dick might have been written by a long-distance swimmer.
If the event were long enough.
Here’s where swimming becomes concentration. In a non-Olympic meet, a red board will be inserted into the water to alert the swimmer that this is the last length, but you’ll want to know where you are long before that, so you can pace yourself.
You need to be able to finish hot, too, to kick it in, to dig, to bring the pain, to even up, to ensure you never get too far behind, to keep everybody in evening distance, which means going anaerobic, then falling back, gauging, re-gauging, counting, re-counting, 170 BPM, 180.
At age 39, I can’t swim this way any longer, but when I’m writing, I feel this way: the world is all noise: the poem has to have a length, an end, a proportionality: the world is all quiet: I am touching all the thresholds of exhaustion: I want more.
Endurance conditioning was, then, training for writing long (or longer) poems: creating enough moment up front to get the poem (and the reader) into the development of a gesture both delicate (threshold) and durable, seemingly overwhelming but finally proportional, large enough to get lost for a time in another time.
You might lose the count, forget where you are, like this year’s second-seed US 1500-metrist, Connor Jaeger, at the national trials. In the final approach, instead of reaching for the wall, he turned, ready for another lap, losing a fraction of a second in the tumble. “I just kept swimming,”
he said, having lost the count. “I didn’t want to risk it.”
What came before, what came after? Where am I?
Did I begin swimming before my scoliosis diagnosis or after?
What year did I swim the 1500? Where are all my ribbons, my records?
Can I retrace my strokes?
These meltdowns happen. You lose the count. You lose some energy, some concentration trying to get it back. You push back over the threshold too soon, and the poem begins to fall apart. You got lost in the warble of a Kerry King guitar solo, tertiary motifs, Bambaataa’s bonus beats.
Analogy on analogy. George Breen, 1956 Olympics, Melbourne. Breen had broken the World Record by 8 seconds in the preliminaries, so he was a favorite. He was swimming against Australia’s Murray Rose, with whom Breen was trading record times. Breen got out to an early lead, but Rose broke free
with only 400 meters to go and Breen never caught up. Even Japan’s Tsuyoshi Yamanaka, who’d lurked behind, overtook Breen for the Silver. You’re focused on a space ahead of you, a time far ahead. You don’t always catch the periphery, the wake of your competitor on the turn, you
may have burned more than you thought in the opening, failed to save enough for the end, may have swam to close to the lactate threshold, a hair over the line, and now, though your mind wants to call up more, the muscles can’t give any more. There isn’t enough
oxygen to make happen what you want to happen. If this were a trial, there would be time to revise, to reconsider, to get the approach to the final right, to manage the poem’s investments and disbursements, freeing the muscle from the purses of the arms at such critical moments.
If you were doing it again, you’d already be back in sprint by now, ready to pour power on power for the final hundred, that last turn, that last trope, the one that will finish and win memorably, persistently, burning itself into safety film or anthologies or instant-replay DVR recordings.
This is when someone should put a sign in the pool, but in Olympic events, this doesn’t happen. A horn is sounded, but you may not hear the horn. This is where you must concentrate, where you must have been concentrating, past, past-perfect, present, and future coordinated, all this time,
all this effort seeming now as prelude and as cause and as prolepsis and proleptic expression of this moment, the final gesture, the resolution, successful if measured, if anticipated, if the anticipation and the realization seem to create one another, to make the time and the distance into a unit.
Such that even after the water has dried from behind the ears, even after the wish of pages is memory rather than event, memory is event, the motion, the poem in your body. This hasn’t happened yet. This is already happening. Is always, noise and quiet. Is everything. Is one.
Can the Spider (Murray) Upset Twinkletoes’ (Federer) Apple Cart?
by Matthea Harvey
Ever since Robert Frost said, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down,” tennis and poetry have been locked in an embrace. Is it a forced embrace, like Scottish Andy Murray and the British public, or are they actually the perfect pair—the identical Bryan brothers doing their signature chest-bump or a tennis racket strung with half gut half synthetic strings? For the last six years I’d claimed to be “sort of working on a poem” while watching tennis, a poem that progressed at the conveniently glacial rate of approximately two lines per year. Last year I had to admit that the poem was finished (http://www.loadedbicycle.com/harveyandtunis.html), and then, like the perfect arcing lob, this essay assignment arrived. A hundred hours of tennis watching later, there’s certainly a case to be made that watching tennis without the poetic tropes of simile and metaphor, is no way to watch tennis at all. And, whether they’re aware of it or not, when the commentators are excited about a match, they hit these tropes hard.
My poetry antennae first perked up when I heard Brad Gilbert say of David Ferrer— with the kind of relish that most people reserve for the arrival of a bacon cheeseburger—“The little beast is diggin’ in!” In tennis circles, Gilbert is famous for his nicknames, calling Novak Djokovic “The Joker,” Maria Sharapova “Shazza” and Ivo Karlovic “Dr. Ivo.” When this year’s American breakout star Brian Baker appeared (after a long absence due to injuries), it didn’t feel as if he’d fully arrived until Gilbert christened him “Baker’s Dozen” and John McEnroe, in a rather muddled but delightful metaphor, opined of his run at Wimbledon, “He’s gotta be loving this—talk about icing on the cake that wasn’t fully baked for Baker.”
David Foster Wallace (who as far as I know, was never asked to “call” a match, but oh he should have been) was a master of both metaphor and simile. In his famous essay for The New York Times, “Federer as Religious Experience,” he wrote: “Wimbledon is strange. Verily it is the game’s Mecca, the cathedral of tennis; but it would be easier to sustain the appropriate level of on-site veneration if the tournament weren’t so intent on reminding you over and over that it’s the cathedral of tennis. There’s a peculiar mix of stodgy self-satisfaction and relentless self-promotion and branding. It’s a bit like the sort of authority figure whose office wall has every last plaque, diploma, and award he’s ever gotten, and every time you come into the office you’re forced to look at the wall and say something to indicate that you’re impressed.”
That’s the kind of simile there’s no time for when you’re calling a match, unless you’re Mats Wilander calling the final of the Australian open this year: “Well, it’s Australia day today and Roger Federer was having a big party at his house and he’s got two huge security guards outside to not let Nadal in and he punched them both out with one left hook, and he’s standing knocking at the door and Federer is now diminished into a little little little guy and Nadal, he’s just pushed past, ‘Out the way. Move over, I’m gonna have a beer, mate—out of your fridge.’”
This kind of extended metaphor is a rarity—usually the comments fly by like an Isner ace—but occasionally the commentators get into a game of verbal tennis themselves. Here’s a quick point from this year’s French Open final:
Ted Robinson: This first thirteen minutes is a significant Nadal opening statement. The jury may already be convinced.
John McEnroe: Case almost closed.
Here match as court case is the vehicle, one that Serena Williams concurred with in a leaked rap recording, “My name is Serena, on the court I serve them up, no subpoena!” I enjoy it when the players get poetic. Take this transformed cliché from Andy Roddick on losing the 2004 Wimbledon final to Federer, “I threw the kitchen sink at him but he went to the bathroom and got his tub.” Or this, from tennis great Virginia Wade, “It's difficult for most people to imagine the creative process in tennis. Seemingly it's just an athletic matter of hitting the ball consistently well within the boundaries of the court. That analysis is just as specious as thinking that the difficulty in portraying King Lear on stage is learning all the lines.” These are moments when the players—who we spend so much time analyzing, projecting our ideas onto—are really trying to tell us what it is like for them.
Why do the commentators and the players turn to similes and metaphors so often? Why do poets? Again, David Foster Wallace: “You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or — as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject — to try to define it in terms of what it is not.” Having Serena Williams say, “I played amazing,” is true, but not memorable, whereas Maria Sharapova’s description of herself playing on clay as “a cow on ice” was so deeply evocative (because not despite the fact that she is decidedly not a cow and court surface is clay, not ice) that it has been repeated ever since. Indeed after winning this year’s French Open, her metaphor showed up in many of the headlines, such as “The Cow on Ice becomes Queen of Clay.”
Over the past six months, I’ve heard herds of comments in which the commentators compared tennis players to animals, a comparison that was made hilariously tangible in the popular blog, Capybaras That Look Like Rafael Nadal, http://capybarasthatlooklikerafaelnadal.tumblr.com/), which is worth a look, given its insanely high quotient of cuteness (I happen to adore capybaras and Rafa, who is sadly absent from the 2012 Olympics due to a knee injury). In my informal tallying, cats took their rightful spot in the animal pecking order—on top. There were heaps of references to “playing cat and mouse” and “pouncing on a serve” and even an implied cat via implied hairball: “In the end it’s Djokovic who coughs up the error.” I counted that as “cat metaphor,” but for balance, comments about “unleashing the forehand” as well as “he’s in no mood to roll over” and “got the yips on her serve” (am I willfully misinterpreting here when I picture a miniature malevolent Chihuahua perched on the racket?) were filed under “dog.” And I can’t help but mention Roddick’s appearance on the Ellen show, on which, when asked about his fast serve, he quipped, “My serve has killed a small dog… I’m joking, I’m joking! The dog was huge!” Federer, on the other hand, is frequently compared to that most graceful creature, the gazelle. Only Andy Murray and Giles Simon had the dubious honor of being compared to insects: “Murray has spun his web”[Ted Robinson] and “This is why this guy [Giles Simon] is crafty and cool, he’s number twelve in the world. He’s like a gnat or a mosquito—just keeps at it.” This Wednesday, Justin Gimbelstob made the first marine reference I’d heard, “Hewitt’s a shark, always hunting, always moving—sharks never rest or sleep.”
Other categories of comparisons highlight some of our other human obsessions—food, war, money, machines, and other sports. Here, a few favorites:
Food: “A wonderful meaty blow,” “That shot had a little bit of additional mustard,” “first double bagel served up [a match where the score is 6-0 6-0] and “Murray feasting on Niemenen’s serve.”
War: “She needs to develop more weapons,” and “The guy is an absolute warrior.”
Money: “That’s a serve that could pay some serious dividends” and “sent that back with interest.”
Transportation: It’s been one way traffic ever since,” and “He righted the ship there after a dicey first set.”
Other sports: “The second serve is batting practice, especially on this side” and “you can see he’s got that look—he’s on the edge… he’s been knocked into the ropes already…”
Machines: “The radar just slightly off on the forehand” and “he’s like a buzz-saw, Nadal.”
Justin Gimelstob is the only commentator I heard actually refer to these parts of speech which are used so frequently. This week he described Stanislaw Wawrinka’s playing style, “the metaphor is the windshield wiper. He’s not linear…” Gimelstob (who is one of four calling the early rounds of Olympic tennis) is infamous for his horrendously misogynist comments in 2008 which I will not reproduce here, and was dropped (briefly) by the Tennis Channel this March, because of this tweeted simile, “The Djokovic drop shot right now is a bigger bailout than Obama's fiscal plan, with comparable results, failure." His apology, “I wasn’t conscious of the power of words,” doesn’t ring particularly true, given a didactic I-am-a-human-dictionary (via Wikipedia, it seems) exchange with Brett Haber I heard this Saturday:
JG: “Federer plays with such relaxed calm, so much true confidence. The best word to describe it? Sprezzatura.”
BH: “God bless you? All right, you’ve gone full Roget’s Thesaurus on me. Sprezzatura? Would you please use it in a sentence?”
JG: Roger Federer plays with absolute sprezzatura—the art of perfecting the nonchalance, concealing all art and making whatever one does, says, appear to be without effort, and almost without any thought about it. Roger Federer synonymous with sprezzatura.“
I’d say Gimelstob wields his words with “the precision of a surgeon,” to use a quote from the man himself (albeit describing Djokovic). He knew exactly what he was doing: casually slipping his politics into a simile sandwich.
A few weeks ago, I woke up from a dream in which I was standing in the middle of a tennis court and hundreds of tennis balls were falling from the sky all around me, making a storm of thuds. A bodiless voice asked me, “Why is your heart beating so fast?” Why indeed? Why does my heart beat faster as I watch a fellow human “move about a hard rectangle and seeks to ambush a fuzzy ball with a modified snow-shoe” (as Eliot Chaze put it so succinctly…)? Maybe because I fell in love with language and tennis around the same time, as a six-year-old in England. Watching Wimbledon on television was a parent-sanctioned form of laziness as was watching the Wombles (who happened to live in Wimbledon), furry creatures who recycled human garbage, and whose theme song, “Underground, overground, wombling free / The Wombles of Wimbledon Common are we…” I loved to sing that song. I still delight in the song’s rhyme and I remember the thrill of the word “womble” morphing into a verb.
Wimbledon has always had a more explicit relationship to poetry than most sports venues. Excerpts from Rudyard Kipling’s “If” (“If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; / If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim; / If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same” )are engraved above the entrance to Centre Court. In 2010, they appointed Matt Harvey as Wimbledon Championships Poet (seeing this, I felt that the trajectory of my life could have been different—if I’d been born a boy and stayed in England, could that have been me?) The other Harvey’s comic verses can be found here: http://www.thepoetrytrust.org/wimbledon/arc. I particularly enjoy the rhyme in the conclusion to “Wimbledon Dreams”: “So many dreamers, with a common theme: / fame, prizes, praise, etcetera etcetera... // (But one will wake and still be Roger Federer” and the perspective in section four of “Umpirical Observations”: ”[the umpire] sits for hours in the sun / in that high chair / yet is the only one /who never throws a tantrum.”
Now, as I watch the Olympic tennis from across the ocean, I’m attending the matches with both eye and ear, marveling at impossible shots, enjoying the iambic thump of the ball going back and forth, and listening for flashes of poetry from the commentators. I particularly enjoy the similes and metaphors that aren’t immediately clear unless you’re watching: “He babied that over. [negative—John McEnroe on Djokovic]” “Zakopalova airmails that return” [it goes long—Chris Fowler] and “Serena Williams versus Jelena Jankovic—one of the popcorn matches today [positive—Brett Haber].”
My favorite images from the opening ceremony were the little clouds on strings, which brought to mind McEnroe’s comment, “Federer seems to float above the court.” Federer as cloud? Why not!? We (poets, sports fans, commentators, players) use poetry’s tools to sharpen or complicate how we see the world. Poetry lifts us up, lets us see things with fresh eyes, as does watching our fellow humans engaged in what could be called a battle, a court case or a work of art.
For more Poetic/Olympic Coverage join us over at The Los Angeles Review of Books.