If you polled one hundred high school football players, asking how well football and poetry go together, you’d probably find unanimous agreement that they don’t. Emphatic agreement, even. Shut-up-and-pass-the-eye-black agreement, I dare say.
But sometimes youth has much to learn. If you polled one hundred 50-year-old men who played high school football “back in the day” (as everyone says “up in this day”), you’d find a more nuanced response. Some would better understand the poetry in hiking and hitting, rushing and passing, kicking and scoring.
In fact, I’ve traveled this gridiron before, sharing three football-themed poems, including one of my own. Then, upon receiving a copy of Al Ortolani’s new chapbook, Hansel & Gretel Get the Word on the Street, from Rattle, I found another good football poem.
The theme of this chapbook is high school in general, which makes sense when you learn that Al Ortolani taught English for 43 years (eclipsing my record by a whopping 18 years, bless him).
But it’s the 17th poem in the chapbook that gave me pause. In poetry, pause is good. It means a poem is on to something bigger than itself. It means the reader is thinking, “Hmn.” It means the reader is about to become that special being he likes to be — the rereader.
Thus, along with the three you can find via the link above, I’m adding Ortolani’s poem to the Super Bowl Hall of Poetry Fame. (I can because I own it.) In simple terms, it finds a simple truth about football and what the game means to boys who take it seriously. It originally appeared in Aethlon: The Journal of Sports Literature. See what you think:
Maybe it’s the way boys
look at each other before the last game,
their eyes wet and glimmering with rain.
Maybe it’s that I catch them
in these shy moments of waiting,
turning the world like a pigskin,
flipping it nonchalantly, low spiral
drilling the air. Maybe it’s this
moment before the splash of lights
before the game prayer
before you run from the door.
If so, forgive me
for seeing you so vulnerable,
in that quiet moment
before the helmets.
True, football is a team sport and feeds off the energy and will of the group, but it’s bigger than that. It has individual meaning to each player, a meaning each kid would be hard-pressed to put into words. Because words like “shy” and “vulnerable” wouldn’t come to mind. Because they don’t seem to belong.
And yet they do.