And the Winner Is ... Pindar!
You may not associate ambitious poetry with sports at all, much less with the Olympics, but Pindar certainly did. Perhaps the most-praised poet (besides Homer) in Greek antiquity, and one of the earliest poets for whom many complete poems survive, Pindar (5th century BCE) celebrated in his best-known work the victors in ancient Greek athletic festivals. We now call those poems his epinician odes (from epi, “upon,” and nike, victory): Pindar seems to have written each one on commission—the sponsor whose chariot won the chariot-race, or the family of a winning boxer, paid Pindar to compose verse about the event, which was then performed, with music and dancing.
Each of Pindar’s epinician odes designates in its title the games, the winner, and the event (e.g., Olympian, Theron of Akragas, chariot race). The odes honor both the aristocratic winner and his family or city-state, often by retelling an apposite myth. Pindar declares in Olympian XI that athletic victories require appropriate poems (meligarues humnoi, honey-sweet hymns) as crops require rain: in Frank Nisetich’s elegant translation,
Sometimes men need the winds most,
at other times
waters from the sky,
rain descendants of the cloud.
And when a man has triumphed
and put his toil behind,
it is time for melodious song
to arise, laying
the foundation of future glory,
a sworn pledge securing proud success.
For Olympian victors, such acclaim
is laid in store
without limit, and I
am eager to tend it with my song.
Sometimes modern Olympics are still tended with his song. The 1984 Los Angeles and 2004 Athens Olympics included classical scholars reciting Pindar, or reading their own commissioned “Pindaric” odes. Our term “athletics” comes from Greek games of the kind that Pindar praised, aethloi (competitions, or ordeals; the word can also denote battles) whose victors could take home an aethlon, a prize. Of all the games, Pindar said (and his audience would have agreed), the Olympics were most important: Olympian I begins, in Anthony Verity’s new rendition,
Water is best,
while gold gleams like blazing fire in the night,
brightest amid a rich man’s wealth;
but, my heart, if it is of games that you wish to sing,
look no further than the sun; as there is no star
that shines with more warmth by day from a clear sky,
so we can speak of no greater contest than Olympia.
Many epinician odes connect the present honor of athletic prizes with the honor and deeds of legendary heroes, especially those in the victor’s family tree.
Pindar has long been a byword for lofty inspiration, for poetic difficulty, and for the supposed connection between them, as if a poet so close to the gods and their power must dwell far from ordinary human speech. Writing in ancient Rome, Horace declared Pindar one of a kind; to copy his effects, Horace continued (Odes, 2.4), would be like trying to imitate a flood. Around 1629, Ben Jonson composed the “Cary-Morison Ode,” the first English poem to imitate Pindar’s complex but regular three-part form. Many poets (though not Jonson) identified Pindar with wildness, irregularity, and mysterious, even supernatural, influence.
Pindar’s language really is difficult, partly because his stanzas use words and sounds from many Greek dialects, rather than staying with one. The 17th-century poet Abraham Cowley called Pindaric composition “the noblest and highest kind of writing in verse,” even though he also claimed, “If a man should undertake to translate Pindar word for word, it would be thought that one Mad-man had translated another.” Cowley then translated Pindar anyway, and wrote his own elaborate “Pindaric” odes.
In Pindar’s Footsteps
20th-century poets, following Cowley, remembered Pindar as a poet of sublime victories over language, not as a poet of well-born athletes who wrestled and raced. The few exceptions to this rule are strongly ironic: Robert Pinsky’s resonant “Glory,” for example, or Delmore Schwartz’s “Exercise in Preparation for a Pindaric Ode to Carl Hubbell,” a self-mocking poem about the Brooklyn Dodgers’ decline. Robert Duncan’s vivid “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar” takes up—as classical scholars now also take up—Pindar’s interest in the life of the state, in the virtues of rulers and politics: “This is magic,” Duncan says, then goes on to list American presidents (“Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower”) in whom no poetic magic lay. For Duncan, as for his 17th-century forebears, Pindar had something to do with majesty, history, and tradition, and with ancient ritual, but very little to do with athletic events.
Modern poems about sports, on the other hand, forget Pindar, and many of them forget about victories too: perhaps from a sense of fairness, perhaps from the contrarian impulse endemic to modernism, the poets of the past century most often laud things and people who would not (without the poet’s attention) get the respect they deserve. A.E. Housman was also a classical scholar: his popular “To an Athlete Dying Young” (1896) is the exception that proves the rule, making a local boy’s recent triumph (“the time you won your town the race”) an occasion to remind us all that we will die. More recent poets who address sports tend to describe either losing teams, or else amateurs, who could use the recognition that poetry gives. Consider the ex-NFLer “Big Daddy Lipscomb” in Randall Jarrell’s 1965 poem about him, “who found football easy enough, life hard enough / To ... die of heroin”; consider the tennis players in Robert Hass’ “Old Dominion” (1979), “graceful from this distance” but stressed-out up close (the same poem laments the death of Jarrell).
Poems about basketball and about ice skating (Mary Jo Salter’s “Sunday Skaters,” Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Slam, Dunk, & Hook,” Ed Hirsch’s “Fast Break,” Major Jackson’s “Hoops”) seem more likely than poems about other sports to emulate, in the suspensions and arcs of their own verse, the skillful motions that the athletes themselves undertake. Yet those same poems (including all four named above) also emphasize the amateur, impromptu nature of the contests that they portray. They emphasize, too, the fact that contests always end. For Salter (whose skaters are children), “It’s all / about time, about time!” For Jackson, “a sneaker’s a cave” and a playground dunk could be a prelude to oblivion. Modern poems that do show competitive victors come down hard on victory’s irony, on what the winners gave up in order to win: Donald Finkel’s “Interview with a Winner” begins “What was it like? / like losing” and continues “For what? / to do it again.” Elizabeth Alexander’s fine 12-part “Narrative: Ali” dwells mostly on Muhammad Ali’s setbacks away from the ring: “Olympic gold / can’t buy a black man / a Louisville hamburger / in nineteen-sixty.” After such slights “The People’s Champ,” “The Greatest,” must boast (“come and take me”) in order to keep back his own self-doubt.
The critic Don Johnson, who wrote The Sporting Muse: A Critical Study of Poetry About Athletes and Athletics and edited the baseball-poetry book Hummers, Knucklers, and Slow Curves, believes that each team sport implies its own poetic subject: American football means pain and injury. Baseball means nostalgia and inheritance from fathers (not mothers) to daughters and sons. Basketball, with its fluid moves, fast pace and high leaps, means escape, self-transcendence, stopped time. Ice hockey, as Johnson does not say, frequently means Canada (Randall Maggs would likely agree); poems about women’s sports usually invoke women’s solidarity, and focus (with recent exceptions) on amateur or noncompetitive events.
What gets lost in many of these poems is the analogy that Pindar’s work implies, between technical excellence in one craft—the handling of a chariot, the running of a race, a serve, an assist—and technical or professional excellence in another: the handling of words. Jarrell used to make that analogy in conversation. Asked how he knew if a poet was any good, Jarrell used to respond (I paraphrase), “How do you know that Johnny Unitas is any good?”
Pindar sometimes predicted that his odes would make victors’ names last: he was right, too. (Here we are, reading about Theron of Akragas.) Can anyone now alive imitate Pindar by writing memorable verse in a living language about an Olympic champion? Should a contemporary poet even try? No one now speaks, as a first language, Pindar’s Greek, and no public ceremony provides the occasion for complex versification that Pindar and his rival poets-for-hire enjoyed. Few Anglophone poets these days want to confer divine sanction on sporting triumphs, much less on the nation-states that the Olympics glorify.
You might, however, say that modern doubts provide all the more reason to imitate Pindar, or at least to try, if we write about sports at all. Despite their obvious elements of chance (does the wind help or hinder the javelin-thrower? will that last three-pointer fall?), athletic competitions can seem like an oasis of justice in an unfair world; sports are one of the few parts of human life where we can see, and choose en masse to see, superior skill or effort (years of practice for individual events; months of learning to play as a team) receive an immediate, evident reward.
If we are looking for modern poets who celebrate triumphs in sports, we can find them, but we may have to look in unexpected places. W.H. Auden said that poetry was the clear expression of mixed feelings. Modern poems about competitive sports, with their praise for losers and the amateurs, their ironies for the winners, fit that rubric; so does Geoffrey Hill’s long poem, The Triumph of Love (1998). His vast knowledge of the past seems at times to match his contempt for the present, and his poem found “Stunned words of victory less memorable / than those urged from defeat.” Yet Hill nonetheless found something to praise, and something to emulate, as he watched the Boston Marathon:
amazing it still is, the awaited name
hailed through our streets, under the pale leafage,
springing from the hierarchies of splendour
and salutation, prodigious messengers
with their own heralds and outriders—
yes, look! the Kenyan runners, look, there they go!
stippled with silver, shaking off the light
garlands of sweat—
Hill’s laudatory passage breaks off unfinished: one of the runners will win, and the race goes on.
Steph Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published three collections of poems: Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006), and...