England is, it seems, a confirmed nation of sporting enthusiasts (along with Scotland, Wales and Ireland, both Northern and the Republic of). Personal alliances put aside, collective spirit is cultivated through being part of the ‘Barmy Army’ in whichever sport is of your choosing – though I’m not too sure that nickname is applicable to slightly more genteel pursuits such as golf and bowls. The summer months always bring with them a range of sporting events and it’s when most of us who wish to partake in some sporting activity feel most up to doing so, as long as rain doesn’t stop play. Of course this year the mania has been ramped up considerably due to that little heard-of contest called the World Cup; it feels like those in the know (as well as those not so much) have been discussing The Three Lions’ chances and obsessing over team selection for years, not months or weeks. For someone who appears to be in the minority – that is, definitely not a sporting enthusiast – it’s all just a tad annoying. With kick off fast approaching, footie hype is reaching fever pitch (two football puns in one sentence – I don’t know if I should feel proud or slightly ashamed of myself) and quite frankly, it makes me want to equip myself with enough reading material to last me through the tournament and go hide under a rock, or preferably somewhere more comfortable. I’m afraid all patriotism seems to fly out of the window when it comes to me and football, and almost everything about the World Cup is irritating to me. At least I can be thankful there doesn’t seem to be much focus on the woefully named ‘WAGs’ and their handbags this time around.
It does make me feel something of an outsider, when England flags are draped from houses and attached to car windows and my sense of excitement fails to be roused. Perhaps my interest would be piqued if Fabio Capello or whoever is in charge of off-the-field activities would take a leaf – literally – out of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club’s book. They have appointed their first poet-in-residence to cover the serves and volleys (as well as everything in-between) of Wimbledon 2010. Matt Harvey is the one to take on the honour, as those at Wimbledon have formed a partnership with The Poetry Trust. I’m not necessarily a fan, but I have always preferred watching Wimbledon over any other sporting tournament; maybe it has something to do with copious amounts of strawberries and cream. It’s good to hear about its linking to poetry, and if it seems perhaps a little strange at first it does appear rather fitting. Sure, Wimbledon is a quintessentially British sport and it’s nice to conjure up images of spectators lazing with a punnet in one hand and a poetry book in the other between sets but it certainly has its fair share of passion – and competitive aggression – on court too, especially in recent years. And poetry is about passion, detailing it and sparking it off too. You need only to take a passing glance at the World Cup hullabaloo to notice that football has passion in abundance, so why not get some poetry into the beautiful game?
The links between poetry and sport have existed for a long time, whether they be odes to leisurely pursuits enjoyed on a sunny day or the more powerful, and at times rather bleak, pieces that describe the battlegrounds of the sporting arena. In many poems published in the era of war, various sports were used as a metaphor for the fighting fields – and some would say as propaganda – to prepare young men for the struggles they would face, to steel them physically and mentally and to stir their emotions towards pride and victory. Instead of heading in that direction, I’m focusing instead on something that is infinitely crucial to our advance in any competition – hope. Unwavering, against-all-the-odds hope. What I’d prefer to call blind and just-a-touch deluded hope given that our sporting glories, in football at least, are about as few and far between as our victories in the Eurovision Song Contest (although I’ll admit, I don’t think we’ll quite be at the bottom of the league in the World Cup tables, unlike Eurovision). This poem by Emily Dickinson is fittingly inspiring, and good for looking on the brighter side if things don’t go quite to plan on the pitch; the players can always take some positive from the words ‘And if indeed I fail/At least, to know the worst is sweet!/Defeat means nothing but Defeat/No drearier, can befall!’. I shall just sidestep the fact that Miss Dickinson is American, the nationality of our first opponents…I do not accept any responsibility if we are defeated by the US of A (or maybe I subconsciously want to sway the matter…)
‘Tis So Much Joy
‘Tis so much joy! ‘Tis so much joy!
If I should fail, what poverty!
And yet, as poor as I,
Have ventured all upon a throw!
Have gained! Yes! Hesitated so—
This side the Victory!
Life is but Life! And Death, but Death!
Bliss is, but Bliss, and Breath but Breath!
And if indeed I fail,
At least, to know the worst, is sweet!
Defeat means nothing but Defeat,
No drearier, can befall!
And if I gain! Oh Gun at Sea!
Oh Bells, that in the Steeples be!
At first, repeat it slow!
For Heaven is a different thing,
Conjectured, and waked sudden in—
And might extinguish me!
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)