A Poem for Every Playoff Team

Ray Lewis--"Prophet still, if bird or devil"

Raven Ray Lewis--"Prophet still, if bird or devil"

Sports Saturday

For the football games this weekend, I found a passage from a poem or passage from a poem that pertains to the name of each team. Enjoy.

Atlanta Falcons vs. Green Bay Packers

The high-flying Atlanta Falcons boast, among other things, the incomparable receiver Roddy White, who soars skyward to pull down passes. Therefore we can apply to them Gerald Manley Hopkins’ “Windhover”:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.

I turn to a more earth-bound image to describe the Packers. The team owes its name to a Green Bay meat packing plant, which brings to mind a passage from Upton Sinclair’s novel about Chicago’s slaughter yards. I’ve posted on this passage before because it contains a reference to football.  Think of Green Bay’s outstanding linebacker Clay Matthews as you read it:

Along one side of the room ran a narrow gallery, a few feet from the floor; into which gallery the cattle were driven by men with goads which gave them electric shocks. Once crowded in here, the creatures were prisoned, each in a separate pen, by gates that shut, leaving them no room to turn around; and while they stood bellowing and plunging, over the top of the pen there leaned one of the “knockers,” armed with a sledge hammer, and watching for a chance to deal a blow. The room echoed with the thuds in quick succession, and the stamping and kicking of the steers. The instant the animal had fallen, the “knocker” passed on to another; while a second man raised a lever, and the side of the pen was raised, and the animal, still kicking and struggling, slid out to the “killing bed.” Here a man put shackles about one leg, and pressed another lever, and the body was jerked up into the air. There were fifteen or twenty such pens, and it was a matter of only a couple of minutes to knock fifteen or twenty cattle and roll them out. Then once more the gates were opened, and another lot rushed in; and so out of each pen there rolled a steady stream of carcasses, which the men upon the killing beds had to get out of the way.

The manner in which they did this was something to be seen and never forgotten. They worked with furious intensity, literally upon the run – at a pace with which there is nothing to be compared except a football game (bold italics mine).  It was all highly specialized labor, each man having his task to do . . .

New England Patriots vs. New York Jets

For the New England Patriots, I choose the early stanzas of Robert Browning’s poem “The Patriot: An Old Story,” where a man talks of his glory days. Imagine he has just won his third Super Bowl in four tries, which the Patriots did in the last decade:

It was roses, roses, all the way,
With myrtle mixed in my path like mad.
The house-roofs seemed to heave and sway,
The church-spires flamed, such flags they had,
A year ago on this very day!

The air broke into a mist with bells,
The old walls rocked with the crowds and cries.
Had I said, “Good folks, mere noise repels—
But give me your sun from yonder skies!”
They had answered, “And afterward, what else?”

Their opponents, the New York Jets, are prohibitive underdogs, leading me to a less rosy scenario. In Randall Jarrell’s “Death of a Ball Turret Gunner,” the gunner in a jet fighter suddenly finds himself under withering fire:

Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

What the Jets would like is the ending of Browning’s poem: the once celebrated patriot is now being led to the gallows in infamy:

I go in the rain, and, more than needs,
A rope cuts both my wrists behind,
And I think, by the feel, my forehead bleeds,
For they fling, whoever has a mind,
Stones at me for my year’s misdeeds.

Pittsburg Steelers vs. Baltimore Ravens

I’ve also posted on this James Wright football poem before. It’s set in Ohio but, since it mentions blast furnaces, it applies to the Steelers—all the more so because their linebackers are famous for galloping terribly against the bodies of the other team. Most famous, or infamous, is James Harrison, who has been fined several times for dangerous hits:

In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.

Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies

For the Ravens, meanwhile, I choose the poem after which they are named. Over the years, any number of opposing players would have found Edgar Allan Poe’s words appropriate for linebacker Ray Lewis: “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore.” And also the following passage :

“Be that word our sign in parting, bird or fiend,” I shrieked, upstarting –
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!- quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

Seattle Seahawks vs. Chicago Bears

Seahawk fans would like for nothing more than to see their team swoop down on their opposing teams for the kill. Kay Ryan describes this happening in “The Osprey” (another name for the seahawk):

The great taloned osprey
nests in Scotland.
Her nest’s the biggest
thing around, a spiked basket
with hungry ugly osprey offspring
in it. For months she sits on it.
He fishes, riding four-pound salmon
home like rockets. They get
all the way there before they die,
so muscular and brilliant
swimming through the sky.

And finally, a poem by Delmore Schwartz, “The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me,” which is particularly appropriate since it mentions football.

The bear stands in for the body or the id or the dark side that all of us carry around with us. Football may be popular in America because it puts us in touch with this “brutish” side of ourselves. I know that I feel guilty about my attraction to the sport because of the severe injuries it exacts upon the players. And yet somehow I can’t shake free as it “drag[s] me with him in his mouthing care”:

The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me

the withness of the body” –Whitehead

The heavy bear who goes with me,
A manifold honey to smear his face,
Clumsy and lumbering here and there,
The central ton of every place,
The hungry beating brutish one
In love with candy, anger, and sleep,
Crazy factotum, dishevelling all,
Climbs the building, kicks the football,
Boxes his brother in the hate-ridden city.

Breathing at my side, that heavy animal,
That heavy bear who sleeps with me,
Howls in his sleep for a world of sugar,
A sweetness intimate as the water’s clasp,
Howls in his sleep because the tight-rope
Trembles and shows the darkness beneath.
–The strutting show-off is terrified,
Dressed in his dress-suit, bulging his pants,
Trembles to think that his quivering meat
Must finally wince to nothing at all.

That inescapable animal walks with me,
Has followed me since the black womb held,
Moves where I move, distorting my gesture,
A caricature, a swollen shadow,
A stupid clown of the spirit’s motive,
Perplexes and affronts with his own darkness,
The secret life of belly and bone,
Opaque, too near, my private, yet unknown,
Stretches to embrace the very dear
With whom I would walk without him near,
Touches her grossly, although a word
Would bare my heart and make me clear,
Stumbles, flounders, and strives to be fed
Dragging me with him in his mouthing care,
Amid the hundred million of his kind,
the scrimmage of appetite everywhere.

Have an enjoyable weekend watching the games.  After the traumas of this past week, we all need some play in our lives.

This entry was posted in Browning (Robert), Hopkins (Gerard Manley), Jarrell (Randall), Poe (Edgar Allan), Ryan (Kay), Schwartz (Delmore), Sinclair (Upton), Wright (James) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Carl Rosin
    Posted January 15, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    Great connections, Robin! I’m going to print these out and post them in my classroom. Football is still trailing baseball in the poetry world, I think, but we need to find ways to make these connections — last August’s Newsweek cover story on creativity — things that the next generation of readers believe they can do too, and do them!

    From the article (I hope the formatting shows up correctly):

    When you try to solve a problem, you begin by concentrating on obvious facts and familiar solutions, to see if the answer lies there. This is a mostly left-brain stage of attack. If the answer doesn’t come, the right and left hemispheres of the brain activate together. Neural networks on the right side scan remote memories that could be vaguely relevant. A wide range of distant information that is normally tuned out becomes available to the left hemisphere, which searches for unseen patterns, alternative meanings, and high-level abstractions. Having glimpsed such a connection, the left brain must quickly lock in on it before it escapes. The attention system must radically reverse gears, going from defocused attention to extremely focused attention. In a flash, the brain pulls together these disparate shreds of thought and binds them into a new single idea that enters consciousness. This is the “aha!” moment of insight, often followed by a spark of pleasure as the brain recognizes the novelty of what it’s come up with.

    The act of pulling together disparate things — my favorite part of reading and education.

    Irwin Shaw wrote it so well in “The Eighty-Yard Run” that I think it sounds like a cliche now: the perfect, elegant football play as a metaphor for the youth we cannot hold onto. He writes about Christian Darling thinking back to “fifteen years ago, on an autumn afternoon, twenty years old and far from death, with the air coming easily into his lungs, and a deep feeling inside him that he could do anything, knock over anybody, outrun whatever had to be outrun.” It’s Dylan Thomas in “Fern Hill” or A.E. Housman’s runner. Like every metaphor, it is and isn’t at the same time.

    Thank you! Now, I’m off to the TV….

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted January 15, 2011 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know the Shaw passage, Carl. Thanks so much for that. And I’m excited that your students will be seeing these poems.

    It’s neat that you mention this problem solving process because I was just reading an article (I think it will be a post next week) on an economist using haiku to better understand economic processes (bridging the science-creativity divide). I’ll go find the article you mention.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete