Poetry and football – a natural marriage, right? I know it’s a hard sell. “Let’s have Terrance Hayes do the halftime show,” said no NFL executive, ever. And yet, the more I watch professional football, the more I have realized how much there is in it for poets to love. This Super Bowl, which pits the Seattle Seahawks against the Denver Broncos, offers even more compelling stories than the usual match-up.
Obviously the topics available to poets are limitless, but for the sake of this post, I’ve broken our interests down into categories that I feel are relatively universal.
FIRST QUARTER: IMAGERY AND SYMBOLISM
Or: There are already a lot of really great poems that use football as a metaphor.
(Quoted below: James Wrights’s, “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”; Stacie Cassarino’s “In the Kitchen” twice; Denis Johnson’s, “Why I Might Go To The Next Football Game”; and Louis Jenkins’s “Football.”)
We are poets. We believe that “in the Shreve High football stadium” we will see young men “gallop terribly against each other’s bodies” because there’s no way to watch this game and not see the celebration of youth and immense physical prowess, along with the possibility of suffering by each others’ hands, and the inevitability of old age and death. We look at a game and understand that it calls into question human resilience. We believe “four chances/is enough to get there,” to get it right. But football also allows us to test this theory, to see how much the human body can withhold and withstand. We “want to say harder/[we] can take it, but/there’s no proof [we] can.” In some ways, it’s safer to be poets than players, to be the “old, breathing/man wrapped in a great coat in the stands, who/remains standing after each play, who knows/something.” But sometimes it’s almost as dangerous to be a poet. We know, for example, that “one has certain responsibilities,/one has to make choices. This isn't right and I'm not going/to throw it.” And then sometimes, because we’re romantics, because we believe in fate-defying leaps, and last second turns, we throw the ball.
TIME OUT: FATE V. HUMAN WILL, PART I
Or: Is Peyton Manning, the Denver Bronco’s quarterback, destined to win this Super Bowl?
Over the course of his lengthy career, Peyton Manning has amassed 55 regular and post-season records (including one set this year for throwing more touchdown passes in a season than anyone else), and is considered one of the best quarterbacks ever to play the game. However, for all of Peyton’s successes, his post season record is an even 11-11. At 37, having recovered from four neck surgeries, it’s unclear how many more seasons he will play. Peyton’s most recent neck injury left him on the brink of irrelevance. Thinking Peyton’s playing days were over, his former team (the Indianapolis Colts) cut him to make room for a new, young quarterback. Peyton’s current record-setting season with the Denver Bronco’s is missing one final piece to complete his redemption narrative, a victory in the Super Bowl. Many argue that it’s Peyton’s time, that he deserves, and is destined, to win.
SECOND QUARTER: LANGUAGE
Or, how Richard Sherman has refocused national attention on language in sports.
If you’ve seen the newspaper recently, you’ve probably read about Richard Sherman, Seattle’s 25-year old all-pro cornerback who made the game winning play in the NFC Championship when he tipped a pass intended for San Francisco’s wide receiver, Michael Crabtree, into the arms of another Seattle player for an interception. What Sherman is in the news for is not his spectacular, game-ending play, but rather his 30-second post-game interview: a loud and brash proclamation of his own prowess and his opponent’s weakness. (To give a sense of the visual: Sherman is a 6’3”, 195 lb black man, who was still in football pads and was shouting over the noise from Seattle’s fans; the interviewer was a tiny, blond white woman who looked taken aback and frightened by Sherman’s words/presence.) After the interview, media exploded with vitriol. On Twitter people called Sherman the N-word; on air, the word thug was uttered in conjunction with Sherman 625 times, according to Deadspin. Sherman used a follow up interview to suggest that the word thug was “an accepted way of calling someone the N-word.” He then pointed to a Vancouver Canucks-Calgary Flames game last Saturday when a brawl took place two seconds into the game: “I saw a hockey game where they didn’t even play hockey. They just threw sticks and started fighting. And I’m the thug here?” What was unsaid: hockey players are white; people don’t call white people thugs. In his response and in his newfound (in)fame(y), Sherman has found a platform to call attention to the coded language used to describe his actions, and advanced a conversation about racism, one that is absolutely necessary.
HALFTIME: A BIG, GLITTERING SHOW
Or: The transformation of a disinterested bystander into an avid football fan
I should note: I have not always been as dedicated a football fan as I am now. In 2008, the year the Giants beat the New England Patriots in one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl History, I skipped the game in order to attend a poetry reading. After the reading, instead of rushing to the second half of a Super Bowl party, I went out to dinner. And when we got out of dinner and people were shouting “18 and 1!” in the streets, I had no idea what was going on. (“18-1,” I learned later, refers to the Patriots record that season once they lost to the Giants.) But I went to grad school in Madison, Wisconsin, in the heart of football country. I taught students who wore cheeseheads on Monday to class if the Packers had won the previous day. And on college football Saturdays, everyone in the city bleeds Badger red. Initially I started following games so that I could impress my students; I continued to be a fan because it turns out I love football. Flash forward to now: Russell Wilson, who played quarterback for the Badgers the first year I lived in Madison, is now the starting quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, the city I lived in right before I went to grad school. One of my closest friends from my MFA is in Vegas being a professional NFL gambler, and he and I text every Sunday during games, both of us on the edge of our seat.
THIRD QUARTER: FORM; PUSHING AGAINST FORM
Or: The unmistakable order and chaos of a football game.
Poets often consider and play with formal structures – meter, rhyme schemes, different patterns of repetition, or different stanzaic structures. This is what football is about – considering form and order, and then playing with it. An explanation of a “4-3 Under Defense” sounds about as complicated as an explanation of a sestina. But in football, as in poems, part of the fun is knowing the rules, and then breaking them – the tension between elaborate structures and unpredictable chaos. In her essay, “Some Notes On Organic Form,” Denise Levertov writes, “Content and form are in a state of dynamic interaction; the understanding of whether an experience is a linear sequence or a constellation raying out from and into a central focus or axis, for instance, is discoverable only in the work, not before it.” Watch Peyton Manning call, and then change, a play from the line of scrimmage. Watch Russell Wilson scramble for seconds while looking for a perfect pass. Out of this unpredictability, this chaos, in football, as in a poem, emerges the perfect turn, the majestic hail-mary pass – a singular moment of sublime beauty.
TIME OUT: FATE V. HUMAN WILL, PART II
Or: Will the Seattle Seahawks triumph, affirming that underdogs can sometimes thwart destiny?
The Seattle Seahawks franchise has only reached the Super Bowl once before (in 2005; they lost). They are lead by a group of players who went undrafted, or were drafted far later than their counterparts on the Broncos. Russell Wilson, Seattle’s starting quarterback, was drafted in the third round of the 2012 draft (75th overall; Peyton Manning was drafted first overall). Many thought that at 5’11”, he was too short to be a successful NFL quarterback. Richard Sherman, the Seahawk’s star cornerback, was drafted in the fifth round. Two of Seattle’s starting wide receivers, Jermaine Kearse and Doug Baldwin, went undrafted. Baldwin, when asked if he and his teammates had a chip on their collective shoulders responded, “It's not a chip, it's a boulder. And no, it doesn't go away, because there's continuous doubt, whether it's about me or my teammates.” Simply put, the Seahawks have more to prove.
FOURTH QUARTER: FRAILTY OF THE HUMAN BODY, UNAVOIDABLE PASSAGE OF TIME, PASSION, LOVE, LOSS, DEATH
Or: This is what professional football is really about.
Ed Reed, a 35-year-old player brought out of retirement earlier this year to play for the New York Jets said, “Football is a sport of kings. It’s not about rings and all that stuff. It’s something that you’re able to do for a short chapter of your life.” And this is perhaps the most striking thing about watching a professional football game. It presents a heightened reality in which bodies are both at their most powerful, and their most breakable. The violence that characterizes each game is hard to miss: players’ helmets fall off with the impact of hits; players stagger to their feet, only to have to sit back down. During the NFC championship, San Francisco’s NaVarro Bowman tore his ACL on national television. Viewers saw, at every angle, the terrible torque of Bowman’s knee, how it twisted under his muscled body as if it was made of rubber, not bone. In last year's Super Bowl, safety Bernard Pollard played the entire game with six broken ribs – an injury he suffered on the first play of the game. And all the physical injuries pale in comparison to mounting evidence of the risk players face of incurring a traumatic brain injury, particularly concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, whether in one hit, or through the course of many hits over years of playing. Yet in a survey conducted this year, 85% of players said they would play through a concussion if their team made it to the Super Bowl. Destructive? Absolutely. Passionate? Yes, that too. Ed Reed said, “My heart is pigskin and probably a football.” Players love the game. They will push their bodies past the breaking point, sacrificing them for something bigger than themselves: their team, the win, the fight, grit, guts. The game is a risky poem that pairs body against body, skin against skin, in the ultimate controlled test of will and resilience that still allows us to believe that maybe there will be a winner at the end of it all.
Or: Whys, why nots, and hows.
It’s true, you can make any number of arguments not to support pro-football and the NFL: the NFL’s non-profit/tax exempt status, the firing of a kicker potentially because of his outspoken support of gay marriage, the bullying scandals, the racism scandals, the law breakers; and the aforementioned catastrophic health cost of playing football, to name a few.
But for better and for worse, the NFL represents a microcosm of the American value system: big risk, big money, big show. In this, it demands attention, both because it is a spectacle, and because it generates a productive dialogue on many pressing social issues. Not to mention the joy.
I had meant to write something snarky and short about all this – something in the vein of “poetry is irrelevant and poets have a terrible complex about this, so at least if we watch the Super Bowl we can pretend to participate in mainstream American popular culture.” We can be portable to bars and have conversations with people who haven’t read Crush at least twice. We can talk about sophomore slumps and mean something other than second-book-concerns.
But it turns out I can’t be snarky about this. I am, after all, someone who cries at every sports movie, even Little Giants. 49% of Americans watch the NFL. Wouldn’t it be nice if 49% of Americans read poetry? Although I am reluctant to admit it, I believe, earnestly and wholeheartedly, in sports and poetry both.
For those who do not know: the Super Bowl is this Sunday, February 2 at 6:30pm. Someone you are friends with is probably having a party. You should go. There will be men in tights running fast, and throwing a ball. There will be fireworks, a Bruno Mars halftime show, and Queen Latifah singing America the Beautiful before the game. There will be hard hits, beautiful spirals, and gravity-defying leaps. And yes, there will be poetry, too.
Hannah Oberman-Breindel's work has appeared in Anti-, BOXCAR, Best of the Net 2012 and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and a fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center. You can follow her on twitter @obermanbreindel, though she does not tweet very often. She will forgive you if you don't end up watching the Super Bowl.