The diehard poet sees a poem in everything. The most seemingly unpoetic experience still offers a story through her lens. Who can say exactly why the poet’s brain works this way?
In some cases, it is an organizing factor. In others, it is a mechanism of defense or cathartic process. At times we construct narratives to protect ourselves from what is raw, painful or inexplicable. We put language onto what we cannot understand, we grapple for a semblance of sense or beauty. Words protect us. That’s how we can write poems about trauma, for example, how the most unimaginable pain can become poetic.
What about distinctly “unpoetic” experiences of the everyday? Poems exist on the most mundane of subjects. Nothing is mundane in the hands of the skilled poet or, rather, the mundane becomes extraordinary in that it is mundane.
But how much of life does the poet approach, not with the images or pieces of a poem, but with the actual poetic process itself?
Everything I do seems to fall into the same general interest areas, requiring use of similar parts of the brain—I write and research and write some more; I curate a reading series for poets; I make music—with the notable exception of playing soccer. I like to think language is a realm in which I have some degree of mastery and playing music seems to exercise the brain in many of the same ways. Where does soccer fit in, besides making me—ideally—a more well-rounded person?
While I enjoy the game immensely, I am all but incompetent on the soccer field. At the risk of constructing a false dichotomy, I’ve always considered myself more intellectually-inclined than athletically. Of course the two need not be mutually exclusive; indeed perhaps I can fuse the disparate pieces of my life and say it is possible to see the sport of soccer—or any sport for that matter—as a poetic experience.
For skilled players, there is a great deal of, well, skill to playing soccer. There is foresight and strategy. You make predictions, take gambles and develop systems of spoken and unspoken communication with teammates. You get better by practicing and watching the masters (rarely in life, however, is that not the case).
There’s a certain art to the balance of the game. You must learn to read your opponent, to think ahead and visualize. So much of the game is lived abstractly, in one’s head, before any play is made. A play takes a moment, while visualization and strategy last all match—even all season. Soccer involves immense amounts of running and passing and work, punctuated by small, intense bursts and climaxes as when a player takes a shot.
How similar all this sounds to the poetic process. A great deal of work goes into crafting a poem. There are hours upon unseen hours of toiling for the little bit that's ultimately displayed. To begin to understand that work, you must read between the lines, unfold and dismantle the finished product.
All poetry is also a conversation, just like soccer, though neither is a conversation in the most traditional sense. Poets converse with their contemporaries and their predecessors, while soccer players converse with their teammates and their opponents. They get to know each other intimately. As my sports fanatic uncle has always preached: “Everything you need to know in life, you learn on the soccer field.”
There’s certainly rhythm and repetition to soccer, as with poetry, but there is also a lot that is unpredictable and beyond our control. Despite certain limiting repetition of a soccer game, there are infinite possible outcomes.
In poetry as in play, we can control what we do but we cannot necessarily control the consequence. We cannot control how a game will unfold just as we cannot control how a poem will unfold—what will it become once it’s left to others’ interpretations?
Alissa Fleck is a freelance writer whose work has appeared on Bitch, Truthout and Narrative.ly and in the Huffington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and more. She writes a weekly literary column for NY Press.