Since it is that time of year…
Skipping over Jim Carroll’s Basketball Diaries, merely because I haven’t read (or seen) it, William Matthews, who I’ve mentioned before, jumps to mind with regards to March Madness. In addition to jazz and family, basketball is a frequent preoccupation of his poems. Matthews talks about practice (“Foul Shots: A Clinic“) with an eye towards the metaphysical, about attending a game (“Cheap Seats, The Cincinnati Gardens, Professional Basketball, 1959“) with an eye towards adolescents’ reality, and about players’ physicality (“In Memory of the Utah Stars“), from both a fan and former player’s point of view.
In “Sandlot Basketball” that former-player aspect is the focus. Amidst a memory of youth comes age’s regret, “Dribbling in the dust, coughing like a dying boat, each knee the color of a boiling lobster, I hate my decadent grace. Body, come back; all is forgiven.” Basketball and youth, being so related and so short a period of time, perhaps explains the frequent poems which are looking back on basketball from old(er) age, with tinges of regret, as in John Updike’s “Ex-Basketball Player” and B.H. Fairchild’s “Old Men Playing Basketball” with their “heavy bodies” and those bodies’ “broken language,” and their hands “fine and nervous on the lug wrench.”
Yusef Komunyakaa’s basketball poem Slam, Dunk & Hook, has these high-energy, beautiful descriptions of athleticism, youth in their prime,
In the roundhouse
Labyrinth our bodies
Created, we could almost
Last forever, poised in midair
Like storybook sea monsters.
Our bodies spunOn swivels of bone & faith,Through a lyric slipknotOf joy
Though even those descriptions are tempered too, “Trouble / Was there slapping a blackjack / Against an open palm.”
In Sherman Alexie’s poem “Defending Walt Whitman,” which mixes together basketball on the reservation, veterans of foreign wars, and Walt Whitman (and what Walt Whitman represents) he says,
God, there is nothing as beautiful as a jumpshot
on a reservation summer basketball court
where the ball is moist with sweat,
and makes a sound when it swishes through the net
that causes Walt Whitman to weep because it is so perfect.
And then Alexie puts Whitman himself on the basketball court.
Walt Whitman stretches his calf muscles
on the sidelines. He has the next game.
His huge beard is ridiculous on the reservation.
Some body throws a crazy pass and Walt Whitman catches it
with quick hands. He brings the ball close to his nose
and breathes in all of its smells: leather, brown skin, sweat,
black hair, burning oil, twisted ankle, long drink of warm water,
gunpowder, pine tree. Walt Whitman squeezes the ball tightly.
He wants to run. He hardly has the patience to wait for his turn.
“What’s the score?” he asks. He asks, “What’s the score?”
The long poem concludes, “There is no place like this. Walt Whitman smiles. / Walt Whitman shakes. This game belongs to him.”
Also possibly of interest to poetically-inclined sports fans, John Wooden’s essay “Great Sorcerer” about how he used poetry and maxims when he was coaching.