Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the iconic poet and co-founder of City Lights bookstore, was just warming up to pro football again when his home team, the San Francisco 49ers, lost this year’s NFC conference championship in heartbreaking fashion to the New York Giants. After taking a hiatus from football fandom for several years, the 92-year-old poet told the New York Times that his interest in American football had been rekindled by the Niners’ postseason run, especially the final moments of San Francisco’s playoff game against New Orleans on Jan. 14. “That was the greatest end of a game I’d ever seen,” Ferlinghetti said.
Though he was galvanized by the 49ers’ surprising success this season, Ferlinghetti made it clear in the article that, all in all, he considers the NFL too violent and finds soccer and baseball more compelling than American football. Soccer is “like chess when you really pay attention to it,” the poet claimed. “In soccer, they never stop,” he added, bemoaning the many whistles and downs and commercial breaks of a typical NFL game.
In drawing this contrast between football and soccer, Ferlinghetti seems to be revealing a poetics of sport. An expanded version of this poetics can be found in Ferlinghetti’s “Baseball Canto,” which begins by proposing that a baseball stadium is a good place to read. “Watching baseball, sitting in the sun, eating popcorn,/ reading Ezra Pound” are the poem’s opening lines—lines that manage, in 18 syllables, to evoke a multitude of simple but satisfying activities and to suggest the richness of experience that we all have access to as readers, eaters, spectators and sunbathers. In the final stanzas of the poem, Ferlinghetti implies that baseball is more exciting than the typical Anglo-Saxon epic because of the way baseball provides a stage for men from different cultures to be heroes if they play well enough. The rules and rhythms of the game, Ferlinghetti suggests, improve on the faceless strongman heroism of the old epics. Nothing in Beowulf is as inspiring as Willie Mays rounding the bases “like a footrunner from Thebes.”
In the pre-game human interest hullaballoo surrounding Super Bowl XLVI, coming up on February 5, you will hear about Eli Manning receiving a surprise post-game visit from his brother Peyton after the NFC championship. You will hear about Victor Cruz, the gritty Giants wideout who was unheralded at the start of the season and is finishing it as a star. Probably you’ll hear about Tom Brady really wanting to win another Super Bowl as well. During all these interviews, the camera will zoom in on the players’ faces. But once the Super Bowl starts, once the masked and padded players finally take the field, the game itself will become a big moving scrum. What individuals do on the gridiron that day will be hard to parse without the assistance of slow-motion replays and expert commentary.
One thing that’s interesting about Ferlinghetti’s poem is the way the baseball players are taken individually, how they step up the plate and become heroes but at the same time poke holes in our notions about heroes needing to use force and violence in order to master other men. In the Times interview, Ferlinghetti seems disappointed in pro football partly because it hasn’t found a way to transcend the violence of the old epics. “It’s murder out there,” the aging poet said, noting that most NFL players, when they retire, are too battered to make normal progress into old age. (He would be comforted to know that former NFL running back Eddie George recently played the title role in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and is pursuing an acting career, but this is of course a glaring exception to the rule.) Ferlinghetti seems to be telling us that football, with its fragmented violence, narrows our experience instead of expanding it, overwhelming us with brutal spectacle. You can’t read Ezra Pound at a football game. In a sense, it’s not just the players who are suffering from the sport’s violence; the design and presentation of a football game does violence to its spectators as well. It attacks our attention spans and subverts our appreciation of individual details.
Of course it can be pretty hard to avoid watching the Super Bowl, even if you think football is overblown buffoonery. But keep in mind that, on Super Bowl Sunday, there are other options. That day, on ESPN 3 (the all-too-accessible free online Wonder Channel), you can watch Italian, Spanish or Dutch soccer games, or tune into the Caribbean Baseball Series and watch Mexico take on the Dominican Republic. At least one aging icon of American poetry would surely approve.