Some years back, we used to run ‘poetry seminars’ for our students. They were more a training for speaking up in class than designed to meet any syllabus. I used to do mine thematically, and would set the class off to find poems to bring to the seminar. One of these themes was heroes (and heroines), and I would produce as my text Alan Ross’s poem about Stanley Matthews (1915-2000), the first footballer ever to be knighted. I transcribe it before the overblown festival of footballing mediocrity that the World Cup will almost certainly prove to be.
A high art poem on a low art subject is a hard act to pull off, and perhaps Ross indulges some anxious cultural name-dropping that doesn’t quite work. Maybe the poem can be seen as ancestral to Karl Miller's notorious prose-poem on Paul Gascoigne. But as a mimesis or verbal opsis of Matthews’ movement on the pitch, the poem is good, and it is clearly (stanza three) the product of someone who has studied his subject intently. The black and white film of Matthews hardly gives any better sense of what he did, and what there was to see, than this poem does. As a highly modified love poem, one man to another (final stanza) it reveals something about the homoerotics of sport. People loved watching Matthews play, and were moved to the poetic by what they saw - his movement, in dribbling past a fullback, was compared to that of a dragonfly, that hovers, then swerves away with flickering rapidity.
Even young women (students), indifferent to football, were beguiled by a poem than can turn ‘
I used to follow football, prior to the Hillsborough and Heysel stadium disasters, which made me give up. The contact that I had with football of the 50’s was early experience at school with leather caseballs, leftovers from a bygone era, hard and weighty, painful if you kicked them with poor technique, frightening objects if they came at you fast. Matthews was the genius at the kind of game they dictated.
Not often con brio, but andante, andante,
horseless, though jockey-like and jaunty,
Straddling the touchline, live margin
not out of the game, nor quite in,
Made by him green and magnetic, stroller
Indifferent as a cat dissembling, rolling
A little as on deck, till the mouse, the ball,
slides palely to him,
And shyly, almost with deprecatory cough, he is off.
Head of a Perugino, with faint flare
Of the nostrils, as though Lipizzaner-like,
he sniffed at the air,
Finding it good beneath him, he draws
Defenders towards him, the ball a bait
They refuse like a poisoned chocolate,
retreating, till he slows his gait
To a walk, inviting the tackle, inciting it.
At last, unrefusable, dangling the ball at the instep
He is charged – and stiffening so slowly
It is rarely perceptible, he executes with a squirm
Of the hips, a twist more suggestive than apparent,
that lazily disdainful move toreros term
a Veronica – it’s enough.
Only emptiness following him, pursuing some scent
Of his own, he weaves in towards,
not away from, fresh tacklers,
Who, turning about to gain time, are by him
harried, pursued not pursuers.
Now gathers speed, nursing the ball as he cruises,
Eyes judging distance, noting the gaps, the spaces
Vital for colleagues to move to, slowing a trace,
As from Vivaldi to Dibdin, pausing,
and leisurely, leisurely, swings
To the left upright his centre, on hips
His hands, observing the goalkeeper’s spring,
heads rising vainly to the ball’s curve
Just as it’s plucked from them; and dispassionately
Back to his mark he trots, whistling through closed lips.
Trim as a yacht, with similar lightness
- of keel, of reaction to surface – with salt air
Tanned, this incomparable player, in decline fair
to look at, nor in decline either,
Improving like wine with age, has come far –
born to one, a barber, who boxed
Not with such filial magnificence, but well.
‘The greatest of all time,’ meraviglioso, Matthews –
Expressionless enchanter, weaving as on strings
Conceptual patterns to a private music, heard
Only by him, to whose slowly emerging theme
He rehearses steps, soloist in the compulsions of a dream.
Philip Larkin included this poem in his resolutely retro Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Verse (1973), which is where I came across it.
http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/73782 (if you have access to the ODNB on-line)