As the 2018 World Cup is underway, it is fitting to open this archive tour of football/voetball/soccer poems on the Netherlands-based and sponsored Poetry International Web with a poem about a player by Rutger Kopland (1934-2012). Kopland, we read in his PIW entry, “ranks high as one of the Netherlands' best-loved poets. He speaks to his readers in a quiet, conversational style, using ostensibly simple phrases. His poems seem to evoke a wistful, almost nostalgic atmosphere of a lost paradise, happiness beneath an apple tree or in the grass.” Yet even here, as Kopland memorializes the Frisian forward Abe Lenstra (1920-1985), in what no doubt seems to be a quaint reminder of masculine bonding through sport, another story is told. Read closely:
We were at the match, it was raining and blowing a gale,
surrounded by the smell of cigars, wet grass and wet men,
a roaring and stamping of feet around us,
football was war, even then.
Father, do you remember how for a second it became dead-still,
the ball came, came out of the grey sky
and blew in front of the goal,
no one had seen he was standing there.
Do you remember how he then just nodded his head,
almost humbly, almost shyly, almost in apology.
We had lost before we realized. Abe.
Tr. James Brockway (1916-2000)
For those of you reading out of an interest in poetry and its translation, here is David Colmer's new English version. You might note that the name of a real Dutch football club that was omitted in Brockway's translation appears here. For those savvy about Dutch football, it's obviously the name of a team. To the football-ignorant, it may evoke the Trojan War, ironically or not so much:
We were at Achilles in the wind and rain,
the smell of cigars, wet grass, wet men,
surrounded by growling and stomping,
football was war, even then.
Dad, remember it going quiet for a second,
the ball came, it came out of the grey sky
and blew in front of the goal;
nobody had seen him standing there.
Remember how he gave a little nod,
humble, almost embarrassed, almost apologetic.
We'd lost before we knew it. Abe.
Tr. David Colmer
Sport, like other important parts of social and cultural life, contains and mirrors our conflicts. As in the Dutch poem above, in War & Peace by Iranian writer Ali Abdolrezaei, the speaker thinks of war when he thinks of football. Here the boys who should be practicing the latter may be consumed by the former:
Peace. . .
had no mother
to put on a veil as dusk descends
to come up the alley
to squat down to watch
the absence of her son
who instead of the ball
jumped on a mine. . .
Tr. Abol Froushan
International football is played by national teams tied to localities but often staffed by foreign players. Unsurprisingly, national issues surface and racism emerges. The Zimbabwean Albert Nyathi notes, in Fans and Fools that
They shout and share the joy of a win
They shout and share the sorrows of a defeat
Yes one team has to win.
Tell me then, how does the colour of the skin come in?
"There's no need to write a poem about soccer/even during the World Cup" says Israeli poet Tuvia Ruebner, who nonetheless takes on a particular game of the World Cup in Uruguay-Ghana 2010. "Most of the spectators manage/ without poetry, thank God." Still he can't help adding to the genre:
[...] I'd tell the player from Ghana
that I really wanted his team to win, and that the referee
should have awarded him a goal when his fabulous kick
was blocked not by the goalkeeper but inside
at the hands of an ordinary Uruguayan player…
There are many ways to interpret rules and one mustn't blur the line
between law and tyranny…
Tr. Lisa Katz
Not only is there no absolute need to write about football, PIW Burma editor ko ko thett says about his poem no football colour that it "is not really about football. I am not into football games. The poem is about something else in football terminology. [The phrase in the title] is a common sign found in pubs in the UK, especially in the Manchester Old Trafford area where I lived. It tells customers not to come wearing football jerseys of their favourite teams. You are in trouble if you walk into a Man United pub wearing a Man City jersey for instance." And so it is not surprising that his poem begins with the declaration that
not to understand the circumstances
not being able to grasp the fourth-language commentaries
For Israeli Gilad Meiri, who has edited a Hebrew language anthology of football poems, the sport may provide a metaphor for conduct good and bad in our living rooms, as in Home Field:
At home you've got good positions to score:
columns in the hall shaped
like an open goal and the walls
an autographed album of balls
that have pierced the parents' defense.
Tr. Lisa Katz
Or football is a distraction from the beauties of nature, as in the Australian Luke Davies' lyrical Poetry and Flowers:
[…] I meant to say: birds and flowers
go ballistic, even with winter coming on.
Carrying on their own life. The earth drowns
in the blooming. Even when there is no wind there is
the solar wind, whipping our bodies from the depths of space.
Ferocities of trees bent double. Playing soccer,
nobody notices this. The far park flutters in mirage.
The jasmine is awash with butterflies.
And, in Chinese poet Hsia Yü (Xia Yu)'s The Ripest Rankest Juiciest Summer Ever, the game is a more ominous distraction from political reality (perhaps as we may feel today):
More than an April iris or an aperitif at six
Although compared to soccer broadcast live hardly anything exists
Our guest, an enthusiast of "Old Cathay" asserts that in these fallen days
Only armed revolution presents so many tragic implications
And then there is soccer
Tr. Steve Bradbury
In truth, there aren't many poems about football in the vast PIW archive. Most of the time, the game or a player is mentioned here and there, as in the Georgian Shota Iatashvili's obsessive Ode to Clothes, where a footballer is less important than the team symbol he provides the wearer of T-shirts:
Clothes are wiser than the wise . . .
Every single one has his particular talent
For example, a toga is an orator, a philosopher;
A wig is a scholar or musician,
A T-shirt is a footballer, handball player or basketball player.
Tr. Donald Rayfield
Rowdy football fans provide one image among many of the human desire for violent entertainment in Nachoem Wijnberg's Revolution:
Is it going to start again with fury
about the redistribution, and only afterwards
about the distribution? You want an uprising on the streets? That works better if the fans of the football clubs join in,
the Galatasaray and Fenerbahce supporters in Istanbul,
like once the Blues and the Greens
in the Hippodrome in Constantinople. You don't think you will be able to
predict the outcome five minutes sooner by recognising that,
at most it provides an opportunity to be able to explain it
when you've stopped watching.
Tr. David Colmer
Perhaps football is more often the subject of doggerel: obvious rhymes expressing literal sentiments. Poetry featured on PIW is instead, hopefully, sometimes musical and sometimes surprisingly discordant to good effect, and nearly always ambiguous/ambivalent/open to different readings by different readers from different cultures. Frankly, we see that on PIW, football is more likely than not to be mocked, as in the couplets of Anne Cotten's Outa Space Soccer:
Go and kick a falling star
make a feeling throw him far
kick him to the edge of green
where the follies can be seen
as they hit him in the face
with their entertaining colours
a whole plethora of hate
scheming at the entrance gate
as a shapeless heap of followers.
Kick him till the stars are flowers,
he no longer thinks of you
you are he and he is you.
Or merely mentioned and dismissed: as a reason why someone may not die yet in Anna Enquist's A New Year I: a subject, yoked with guns, that does not interest a depressed woman in Oreet Meital's Doesn't; and a sport that's hated by the son of a wounded veteran and former professional player in Shachar Mario Mordechai's The One Who Doesn't Know How to Ask.
To read more poems on this topic, use the PIW Search function: football or soccer. Or go ahead and write one.
(Curated by Lisa Katz)
Ball image: from "Sphere Within a Sphere", sculpture by Arnaldo Pomodoro.