They think it's all Ovid!

June 25, 2004

Poetry isn't all about fields of daffodils. Spurs fan and poet Sarah Wardle's latest work is inspired by her beloved local team.

The story of a poet-in-residence at Tottenham Hotspur caught the imagination of some newspaper editors perhaps because poetry and football appear to be polar opposites. Football occupies a central place in popular culture. It is a collision of community, celebrity and capitalism.

By contrast, poetry can sometimes appear sidelined, specialised and solitary. Poetry's premiership players have a low profile by comparison, and poetry is not a subsistence activity. But both poetry and football involve craft and graft and intrinsic rewards of concentration and satisfaction.

As films such as Fever Pitch and Bend it Like Beckham demonstrate, the trials and successes of football can mirror the rollercoaster ups and downs of life, so that football itself becomes a poetic metaphor.

The days of bards, troubadours and court poets are gone, and more people will watch Troy than read the Iliad . But echoes of poetry can be heard in song lyrics, nursery rhymes, hymns and advertising soundbites. Public outpourings of poetry after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and 9/11 revealed the appeal of poems in extremis . Widespread literacy, increased leisure time, word-processing, writing as therapy and the study of poets in schools and universities all enable more individuals to write as well as read poems.

Other initiatives have seen poetry made more public, such as poems on the London Underground, poets in hospitals and the rise of performance poetry.

Poetry today is full of teams, individuals and plural voices. Poets such as Tony Harrison, Seamus Heaney, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Debjani Chatterjee, Mimi Khalvati or Deryn Rees-Jones powerfully articulate social as well as lyric concerns. Poems in English and translation compete in friendly games, local derbies and for cups, shifting the goalposts and bouncing off one another. Precedents for poetry addressing football include Harrison's film-poem, v ., with its football conceit, which explores the opposition of clashing interest groups, and Wendy Cope's Roger Bear's Football Poems , which capture the boyhood enthusiasm of adult male fans from a female perspective.

Poets-in-residence at football clubs have included the performance poet Attila the Stockbroker at Brighton and Hove Albion. The Premiership sponsor, Barclaycard, has recently appointed a chant laureate.

Poetry and football both rely on a combination of rules and creative play.

Game theories of language, the grid of a sonnet, patterns of formal stanzas, metre and free verse cadence are boundaries, like the referee's decision, the pitch itself and the offside rule. Techniques of sound and imagery are skills similar to a talent for striking or tackling. Just as footballers sometimes dive or foul, so poets vary a strict metre with the counterpoint of natural speech. The rhythmic and alliterative chanting of the stands draws on elements of lyric poetry and the spirit of satire, casting a spell of solidarity.

The footwork of Frederic Kanoute is as subtle and controlled as Derek Walcott's word choice. The ingenuity of Jermain Defoe is as lateral as the ideas and imagery of T. S. Eliot. A goal achieves resolution in the way a climactic couplet or image can.

Poetry and football both offer vicarious experience, like watching a play's insights into characters under pressure.

As a teacher as well as a poet, I have particularly valued the opportunity to see poetry used in a community context to boost the appetite of young people for creativity and learning. Since 2001, the Tottenham Hotspur Study Support Centre, led by poet David Lyall and fellow former English teacher Anna Rimington, has used poetry and other subjects to motivate underachieving gifted and talented children in the borough of Haringey.

After-school study support fosters literacy, numeracy and IT skills, using football as a theme and providing a fresh context in which students can develop and achieve. The study support centre is one of many community projects that Spurs and other clubs organise. One of Lyall's workshops confronts racial prejudice, based around a video, Show Racism the Red Card , in which students are invited to develop an opening line: "I like to think of Walter Tull..." Tull was Tottenham's first black player and only the second black professional footballer in UKfootball history. He volunteered for war in 1914 and two years later became the first black officer to receive a commission in the British Army. He was killed in 1918 on the Somme weeks before the Armistice and has no known grave, but is vividly recalled in the Spurs students' poetry. As this exercise shows, at the heart of both poetry and football is identity, a blurring of heroic ideas of the individual with group ideals.

Poetry deals in self-expression and explores what it is to be human through empathy and experience. Social feelings of belonging, expectation and community are central to the pleasures of the crowd. As a Spurs fan, I identify with the players, the fortunes of the club and other supporters.

Where the flâneur wanders city streets alone, struck by the Brownian motion of random thoughts, the minds of a crowd are like atoms of a solid, conducting heat and energy.

My goal in asking Tottenham Hotspur if I could write poems at White Hart Lane, as a Spurs fan and local lecturer at Middlesex University, was a desire to develop more connected and less remote work.

My first collection, Fields Away , ranged in theme from surviving mental illness, through classics and philosophy, to explored personal geographies of country and city. The new poems, A Score for Spurs , which I hope will form a pamphlet of 20, explore more realistic and contemporary themes.

Writing as a woman in a predominantly male environment offers fresh perspectives. Male themes are attractive from a woman's point of view, and the female gaze of a poet is like the male gaze of painters. As with form, a set subject matter helps you focus and is not constraining - poems on other topics have emerged along the way. Residencies and new environments can generate poems with familiar preoccupations. One of my favourite poems uses the Spurs motto, Audere Est Facere , to argue the case for practical over theoretical endeavour, while In the Bill Nicholson Suite celebrates the meritocracy of the Spurs team that won the double in 1961: '"These are not the names/ of hereditary kings, but of men/ who succeeded and deserved to win."

My most recent poem explores how ultimately we all compete against ourselves. Like the students at the Spurs Study Support Centre, I have found the inspiration of Tottenham's players a spur not only to poetry, but to a positive outlook on life itself.

Sarah Wardle is a lecturer in poetry at Middlesex University. Her first collection, Fields Away , was shortlisted for a Forward Prize.

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