Sunday, July 11, 2010

Poetry Olympics

One of the most interesting things Carol Ann Duffy has done since becoming laureate is her curated portfolios, commissioning a range of poets to write about a particular subject, and yesterday, to coincide with the World Cup finals, saw a collection of poems about sport. Instead of the Laureate dashing off a single poem to commemorate an occasion, you therefore get a range of voices and subjects. Although the poets featured are quite a conservative bunch, there's some interesting subject and some good poems.

I'm not so convinced that sport and poetry are obvious bedfellows, and it's clear from some of the poets' responses to the subject, that for some poets it's the first time they've thought about sport since cowering at the back of the changing rooms during compulsory sports day, but that aside, it's worth spending some time with.

Carol Ann's offering, "The Shirt" is a nice idea - millionaire footballer not feeling worthy of wearing "the shirt" - let down by a throwaway last line that will probably get a laugh at Manchester readings. Football isn't as ubiquitous in this selection as in the sports pages, but does feature in the best poem here - Ann Gray's "The Wonder of You" - where the writer clearly understands the passions of supporting a particularly club, and uses these passions to investigate the complexities of belonging.

But, as Duffy says in her introduction, it is cricket that has been most beloved of English poets, perhaps because both English poetry and cricket are ever prone to a certain kind of sentimental nostalgia. Kit Wright's "The Roller in the Woods" is, as she says, a fine poem, but it's emotional canvas would be instantly recognisable to Betjeman or Larkin. And if there's nothing here quite as humorous as Billy Bragg's classic line, "I never made the first team, I just made the first team laugh," I liked the idea of these poets stretching their talents to address a subject matter that they may not have previously tried. On the weekend when a new team will win the World Cup, and the aesthetes of the Dutch and Spanish teams are all capable of what hyperbolic commentators may well refer to as poetry, the poets here have done a nice job in redressing the balance.

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