The challenge of writing about sport is that you have to adapt its language, which has become increasingly technical, jargony and numbers-drivenby Benjamin Markovits / December 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in Mid-winter (Jan-Feb) 2019 issue of Prospect Magazine
Inspector Morse thought that the saddest lines in the English language were Thomas Hardy’s “Not a line of her writing have I, Not a thread of her hair…”—about the death of his pretty cousin Tryphena Sparks. But these come pretty close, from Betjeman’s “Cheltenham”:
And we were seventy-six for seven
And they had CB Fry.
Fry, of course, was the great turn-of-the-century cricketer, once described as the “handsomest man in England”; he was also supposedly offered the throne of Albania. Betjeman’s lines capture something of the drawn-out hopelessness of an English summer’s day, when the other team is better and you know it and there’s nothing you can do.
But it also says something about the smallness of their sporting world, when a guy like Fry can show up at some match and a guy like Betjeman happens to be watching from the side.
Sport is not the easiest subject for great poetry. Contemporary fandom, with its data analytics, Sky subscriptions and Match of the Day, has an aesthetic quality—bright, loud, geeky, super-vivid, and essentially ephemeral—that most poets find difficult to digest. To make timeless.
More interesting, sometimes, is the way sport creeps into general poetic language. Like Swinburne’s description of the shortening winter days, from Atalanta in Calydon: “The light that loses, the night that wins” or Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” whose theme should be familiar to any fan of the English penalty shootout (at least till last summer)—“The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”
My old Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (the 1953 edition), which filled my mental vacancies before the invention of the smartphone, has about two dozen entries under variations of the word “sport”—most of them to do with hunting, or the pursuit for which hunting served as a metaphor, what Ben Jonson called “the sports of love.”
In most of these quotes, to “sport” is to trifle, to dally, to play (“to sport with Amaryllis in the shade”)—to not take seriously. We can see this tendency in what may be the most famous reference to sport in all of Eng Lit, from King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods;/ They kill us for their sport.”
And yet, even by 1953, the word’s meaning had begun to evolve into its own opposite, so that sport now stood for a kind of narrow striving, a form of limited super-seriousness. As Disraeli writes in Lothair:
What I admire in the order to which you belong is that they do live in the air; that they excel in athletic sports; that they can only speak one language; and that they never read. This is not a complete education, but it is the highest education since the Greek.
It’s also a pretty good description of the stereotype of the modern athlete.
Modern sport has become a kind of metaphor for extreme striving, a big-money scientific experiment into what humans are capable of. Data analytics allows us to record the results of these experiments in ever more refined ways.
All of which probably sounds more critical than I feel, because there’s a virtue in being serious, too. Part of the challenge of writing about sport these days is that you have to adapt its language, which has become increasingly technical, jargony, numbers-driven.
But it can be done, and poetically, too, as Betjeman showed in “Cheltenham” in 1940, when “we were seventy-six for seven, and they had CB Fry.”