Friday, 25 February 2011

From field to form 1: the Rooney moment

Do just watch with the sound off!

I am interested in what people mean when they exclaim: Sheer poetry! or That's poetry in motion! These are ordinary people with no particular sense of literature and no sustained experience of written or oral poetry. It fascinates me partly because no one ever cries in admiration: Sheer prose! Indeed, when people consider a thing prosaic the term is intended, and taken, as criticism. I have long felt that this almost involuntary cry referring to poetry that goes up at times, in dance or sport, was the affirmation of an instinctive understanding of what poetry might be.

The reason I begin here - and did at Brighton - was because I actually heard the term, Sheer poetry! used by a TV commentator, either of Rooney's goal, or some moment in the recent Arsenal-Barcelona game. It really doesn't matter which match I use because the argument would assume a similar shape, and if the reader draws certain conclusions for my choice of the Rooney moment, those conclusions will be, I am happy to confirm, correct.

I say a moment but then it seems to me that it is not the question of a 'moment', not, at least, of a moment without context or duration. To put it another way I asked myself what the poetic moment was? Was it the moment the foot strikes the ball? The moment the ball hits the net? Do we rewind to the point Nani centres the ball? Or should we go back still further to the point at which the 'move' seems to start.

I don't want to get dryly analytical about this but the following occur to me.

The narrative of the poetic 'moment' begins somewhere and ends somewhere. The narrative of the Rooney goal might be said to begin just before the clip above, with a team passing movement that develops a certain momentum, a momentum that is briefly interrupted by Rooney himself in one of those passes. (Sometime in the future the poet Rooney might consider editing that line.) If poetry is a sequence of limited length - in this case, the clip - it's worth considering the possibility that the story of the full second half might be a badly edited short story, that the whole match might be a novella, and that the season itself might be a whacking great airport novel.

Does the narrative stop with the foot contact? The ball in the net? Or with Rooney's act of celebration, rather like an ice dancer's or gymnast's at the end of a floor exercise? The 'poem' does not seem quite complete without the celebration, as the crowd well know. The celebration, however, is not part of the form of the game. It is, perhaps, that moment of silence after the reading or saying of the poem.

How much do we have to know about the rules of the game? The history of the game? The history of this particular match? How much do we need to know about what constitutes skill in a game? Again, we can assume that a good portion of the crowd knows something about this, and that such knowledge helps form their sense of the poetic in this context. The bicycle kick has a certain independent grace, just as a few lines in the poem might take the breath away, but the breath is stopped in a context. The overhead kick belongs in a sequence of events.

How would it affect our sense of the poetic if we knew that every part of the movement was strategy? How much difference does it make to know that the whole is improvised, based on some ideas of strategy (why is this player on that spot at that time, running in that direction?)

There is - isn't there? - a considerable element of chance in the execution, particularly for Rooney. In one split second he decides to attempt to overhead kick. He takes off and looks to hit the ball. Should he miss, the result would be comical. Should the ball balloon over the bar the result would be disappointment and pathos. The element of risk is assumed by the crowd. It is specifically because the movement is high risk that the moment itself is heightened. All the more so because the occasion is one of great importance to the spectators. Failure too would be magnified.

It is Rooney who finished the movement, fed by Nani, involving other players. The fact that Rooney's name is (to use structuralist terms) a rich and complex signifier whose reading depends, to some degree, on the subjective disposition of the reader - who might be a Manchester City supporter - but which nevertheless constitutes a powerful set of meanings is an important part of the poetic experience. The same set of events enacted on a practice pitch, or in an amateur club game, would not presumably resonate in quite the same way. The goal takes place before a substantial audience. Rooney's meaning is different from Berbatov'e meaning or Nani's meaning or Joe Hart, the City goalkeeper's meaning. I don't mean in any context - I mean in this one, happening now - but informed by whatever has already happened.

To sum up: it might be that the poetic is constituted of risk in a context, an essential part of which context is formal and historical. The poetic moment begins somewhere with a specific action (a first line, in medias res) according to certain formal possibilities with certain recognizable figures playing character roles in an improvised narrative involving the risk of failure.

I wanted - somewhat playfully - to establish the notion of the poetic as an essential aspect of human experience, requiring some familiarity, but responding to a universal longing. In other words to demonstrate that the sense of the poetic does not 'belong' exclusively in the realm of literature. Everyone is capable understanding it as 'effect'. I didn't want to draw my example from the other arts, but from something considered rather boorish, from the world of flannelled fools and muddied oafs. I did however point out that such poetic sequences may be available in everyday life, in the way someone moves in an available space. I could have added that the term poetry in motion was used by some men of the movements of some women (and possibly vice versa, of course, though the context is less public there, or at least less well known to me.)

From here I went on to consider the difference between poetry as effect, and poetry as a product of verse. I don't mean high formal verse but of lines operating within an awareness of formal constraints and possibilities, such as the ending of lines, the deployment of rhythmic and other devices, the modulations of diction, address and register that constitute a sense of voice, never to forget the ways in which words and combinations of words refer both to the world and to language.

In Rooney terms we have the dimensions of the pitch, the basic rules of the game which nevertheless allow no two games to be similar, the notion of playing style, the vocabulary of possible moves, and a sense of character as generated by both what we may expect of a player and what other apparently extraneous parts of knowledge regarding the player - Rooney's visits to prostitutes, his wife's pregnancy, his transfer request, etc. Words are coloured by associations outside their immediate context and so are players.

No analogy is exact, no analogy is authoritative, no analogy is without dangers. An analogy presents us with a field of action in which similar events are deemed to occur. I moved on from the football analogy after less than ten minutes, returning to the ice-skating metaphor I first used in the Eliot lecture in 2005. But every so often I wanted to bring the Rooney sequence to mind again.

The next stage of the talk looked briefly at the poetic effect in literature. I'll go on from there next time.


Gwilym Williams said...

When I was a boy collecting football cards with chewin' gum, ice cream and candy cigarettes the mere names of the football heroes were poetry to my ears.

Great that the poem you showed started with the magic word - GIGGS

litrefs said...

Great execution but what else could Rooney have tried in the circumstances? Whereas Arsenal's 2nd goal on the same day was a constructed string of 1st time passes from defence to attack marred only by Van Persie's extra touch before scoring.

George S said...

What else could Rooney have done? He could have failed. As it happens I am inclined to regard the Arsenal goal as even better, but that is simply a different poem. I am entitled to read both Pound and Eliot.

The Word & Image said...

Hi George -- I thought I would put in my two pennies in terms of wrestling. For me, as I have discussed with you before, there are poetic wrestlers, the epitome of whom is either Johnny Saint or Steve Grey. Here is a YouTube clip of an encounter from February 1980: (note the referee is Tibor Szakacs from Budapest) which I have chosen not because it is a particular favourite but because the two combatants are.
In terms of what is at stake, meaning and risk – one could compare the position of Johnny Saint in this bout to Rooney in your analogy; he is of a certain stature and perhaps as World Lightweight Champion he is a more readily understood signifier to the audience but the fact that Grey has beaten him in their previous encounter means that not only is Saint’s championship on the line but the way in which we read Johnny Saint as a signifier is on the line in this contest. This heightens the intensity, it endows each movement, which are the aspects I find to be poetic, with a greater meaning.
There are of course also poetic movements which we refer to as ‘signature moves’. Early on we see Steve Grey’s shoulder rolls to escape Saint’s wrist-lock. This is a movement which is known to connoisseurs or grapplefans and what makes it poetic is the speed, the cadence and ring-awareness of Grey. It is a move which must be executed quickly as its success as a sign relies on it being read as surprising his opponent. This is poetic to a degree but it’s a building block, a decent couplet.

I could probably drivel on for a while about this but I'll leave it there for now.

Hope you're well. Angus.

George S said...

That really is a stunning, athletic contest, Angus. It's almost like a dance. Thank you. I think wrestling is even more concerned with character than football, in only because football is a team game. The poetry here is partly in the choreography, partly in the idea of escape (I suspect escape is a key motif in conflict games).

The referee by the way is not Tibor, but his younger brother Peter Szakacs. Tibor was the great wrestler: Peter a more minor wrestler figure. It is Peter I went to visit in his small house in Brixton when I was beginning to research my novel. Peter's English is very broken indeed and I have a few hours of recorded conversation with him that was very hard to transcribe. The story was that once Tibor's wife had left him Tibor himself (Robert Albert Hall champion five years running, medals presented by the Duke of Edinburgh) moved into a small room in Peter's house.

Peter's refereeing career was fairly brief because he took the wrestling too seriously and cold not quite bring himself to act the blind and bent ref.

I enjoyed your show yesterday. It looked really good.

litrefs said...

p.s. Some years ago I read an article by Berkamp (probably in the Guardian) where he discussed beauty and Dutch football (I think he comes from a family of doctors, so he may well have written it himself). A bit psuedscornerish, but I think I recall him writing that it was the flat Netherlands that helped give him spatial imagination, the big skies providing a 3D canvas for trajectories.
I don't know about wrestling, but I think Rooney's father was an amateur boxer.

Mark Granier said...

Thanks Angus. I have often wondered what 'real' wrestling (minus the pantomime) looks like. It looks like a line, trying to unknot itself, and going through a series of dancing flourishes in order to do so. Wonderful.