From Poetry Magazine

All Great Soccer Players Are Poets

Duy Doan

Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Duy Doan’s poems “Rickshaw Boy” and “Mother’s Dirge” appear in the October 2017 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors' Blog.

A verbal feud between the two Brazilian soccer greats, Pelé and Romário, saw the latter pull well ahead in the spat when he called his compatriot, the far more iconic Pelé, “a poet when he doesn’t speak.” The devastating insult and compliment gets me started down the path of thinking about my two favorite things: soccer and poetry. Romário must see something of the highest order in poets. What is it?

The qualities I appreciate most in my favorite soccer players happen to be the same ones I appreciate in my favorite poets: beauty, creativity, flair, imagination, skill—all words, incidentally, that I’d attach to Pelé and Romário. I’m always shifting around my hierarchy of what goes where in the list (it’s the classic sports fan idiocy and obsession with ranking things: who’s number one and why?), but what never fails to top the list is flair, that extra dash of style—the artist, showing off the cleverness of their imagination and calling attention to the technical ability required to pull it all off.

Great players like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo (before them: Zinedine Zidane, Diego Maradona, and Johan Cruyff), have a knack for the fancy, a need to play in an eye-catching way. How often does Messi, for instance, with the game in the balance and his team depending on him to make the difference, summon the most imaginative, most beautiful solution possible? It’s almost as if he doesn’t know how to play any other way. When given the opportunity, Messi always opts for the memorable.

The best example I have of this inclination towards flair in poetry (I half hope I’ll find another example, I half hope I never will) is Rita Dove’s poem “Dusting” from Thomas and Beulah. In the poem, Beulah, “patient among knickknacks,” performs the humble work of dusting, which sets off a series of memories; she gets caught up in one memory in particular, a boy she kissed when she was young:

was his name, that
silly boy at the fair with
the rifle booth? And his kiss and
the clear bowl with one bright
fish, rippling

She recognizes, immediately, that the name is “Not Michael,” but “something finer.”

Carl Phillips has brilliantly broken down the poem before, calling the poem’s conclusion, when Beulah finally remembers the boy’s name (Maurice), magic. Phillips points to the stanza preceding the epiphany:

That was years before
Father gave her up
with her name, years before
her name grew to mean
Promise, then
Long before the shadow and
sun’s accomplice, the tree.

Here’s an assignment: Circle the consonance, rhymes, and near rhymes, and then drop the boy’s name in at the end.

The poem’s dilemma: recalling a name. The solution: Dove suggests that the name is at the tip of your tongue and invokes the “sounds like” mechanic of charades. She gets you to his name by leading you through words that sound like it: before, name, before, name, promise, peace, accomplice, tree . . . Maurice. I find this moment of sublime technical skill and imagination unbearably intoxicating. Even that slight pause before “tree” (the comma and definite article) is slick. Nothing here is pointless flair.

In 2010, Lionel Messi, playing for F.C. Barcelona, scored four goals in an important match against Arsenal F.C. of London. His third goal was by far the most memorable: Guilty of overzealousness, Arsenal’s defense allowed Messi to break away free on goal—if you look at the goal (2:30 in this video), you can see how much green space there is around him. Messi takes two quick looks over his shoulder to check if he has enough time to pull off the spectacular, brings his staccato movement to a halt by gracefully opening up his stride to gather himself (and the ball), and then lifts a cloud up and over the goalkeeper.

For me, flair is the supreme example of the human impulse to create. We are an “art-making, art-needing animal,” as Robert Pinsky has put it. Ellen Dissanayake, in her book Homo Aestheticus, refers to art as the product of “making things special.” I’m deeply heartened by that impulse to “make special,” which, I think, is one of the few things that redeems our many undesirable qualities as humans. Witnessing that impulse in great artists can make me weep.

I owe huge debts to poems and goals like Dove’s and Messi’s because weeping, frankly, is when I’m at my best. Seamus Heaney once said:

I have always thought of poems as stepping stones in one’s own sense of oneself. Every now and again, you write a poem that gives you self-respect and steadies your going a little bit farther out in the stream. At the same time, you have to conjure the next stepping stone because the stream, we hope, keeps flowing.

I love, love that quote. But I’ve never really felt that way about my own poems; I’ve never felt that I’ve ever really been an agent in conjuring the next stone. For me, the steadying that Heaney spoke of is something I owe to other artists. I spend most of my days restless and angsty, constantly on the lookout for the next great goal, the next breathtaking film scene, the next mesmerizing dance choreography, the next beautiful poem. The fancy footwork I find in artists like Rita Dove and Lionel Messi are my stepping stones.

Originally Published: October 24th, 2017

Duy Doan is the author of We Play a Game, winner of the 2017 Yale Series of Younger Poets. His work has appeared in PoetrySlate, The Cortland Review, and elsewhere. A Kundiman fellow, he received an MFA in poetry from Boston University, where he serves as director of the Favorite Poem...