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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Winners and Losers

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I've vowed not to watch the Olympics this year. I am weary of the division of the world into winners and losers, the winners beating their chests and gloating, the losers vanishing into the background as if what they did was never worthy of our attention anyway. In the arts, we know that winners and losers are ephemera. The work they create,however, whether poem, painting, dance, novel, or for that matter a quilt or a delicious meal, is not ephemeral. In the literary world, we have our Pulitzer winners, our Guggenheim winners, our national and state fellowship winners, our New Yorker published winners, and so on. Our MFA programs list the number of "winners" they have produced, like a list of gold medals. Meanwhile, others of us weep over the soup pot, as I did so many years ago, clutching yet another rejection slip. Was I writing mediocre poems then? No. Was I a loser? No. I was a poet, learning my craft, learning how to live my life.

Eight years ago I gave the keynote at a writers conference in Greeneville, TN; the Olympics were being televised that week. An image forever imprinted in my mind is the tail end of a race, the runner determined to cross the finish line, even though he had fallen, injured, and barely able to move. His response to crossing the line was simply, "I've won." Yes, he was a loser, no medal stand for him. But he had done what he came to town to do; he had crossed the finish line and considered himself a winner. The thesis of my speech was the importance of "losers." Aren't we all losers? How many "winners" can we have? Better to be losers and lovers of the sport, the art, the cuisine, the calling.... and so on, forever and ever.

And here I insert a response from Susan about that incident. "(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derek_Redmond). He was in the 1992 Olympics. His hamstring tore during the 400 meters semi-final. His father ran out to him and held him up. Together they made a complete lap of the track to finish the race. He was disqualified of course as you have to complete unaided, but they received a standing ovation as they struggled around the track. And they finished the race together. Doesn't that exemplify winning more than anything?" Thank you Susan!


Competition is an addiction. You will see it in all its presumed glory over the next few days. If you turn on your t.v., that is. I'd rather not. I'd rather pick tomatoes, read Adam Zagajewski's poetry, make pickles, or sit out under the trees watching the clouds pass by. I would wish the same for our state's writers and readers. Especially our poets. When are you going to write "a real book," someone asked after my first book of poetry, The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest, was published.
I didn't know how to answer.

I prefer quoting Richard Hugo, American poet--one we should not forget, ever:
"Writing is a way of saying you and the world have a chance. All art is failure."

"Every poem a poet writes is a slight advance of self and a slight modification of the mask, the one you want to be. Poem after poem, the self grows more worthy of the mask. ... Hope hard to fall always short of success."

To fall always short of success? That is an alien message to the Olympics, the media circus that envelopes it. It is not an alien message to writers and readers.

8 comments:

Vicki Lane said...

I agree. I've never been a sports fan probably for the same reasons. Even when my son was playing soccer, I hated seeing the unhappiness of the other team when they lost. Of course, it was worse when my son's team lost,because then we had to bring home a carload of miserable little boys and the air was thick with the agony of defeat. ( As well, I can't resist adding, as the odor of the feet and the rest of their sweaty bodies. They actually seemed to smell worse when they lost.)

I am captivated, now and then by the grace and beauty of some athletes but I enjoy these moments whether the athlete is Brazilian, Nigerian, Italian, or whatever.

Susan M. Bell said...

I've been watching the commercials about the Olympics...VISA sponsored commercials I think. (Could be wrong.) When I see a story that seems interesting, I'll look it up online.

The best story to me is the one about Derek Redmond (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derek_Redmond). He was in the 1992 Olympics. His hamstring tore during the 400 meters semi-final. His father ran out to him and held him up. Together they made a complete lap of the track to finish the race. He was disqualified of course as you have to complete unaided, but they received a standing ovation as they struggled around the track. And they finished the race together. Doesn't that exemplify winning more than anything?

Anonymous said...

Maybe because I was always a loser at sports, I have a special compassion for those lovely little gymnasts who don't get the gold; the one that missed by just one point or the heart breaking moments when some accident or something cruelly ends a young persons dreams of becoming a champion. I want to tell them, "That isn't all there is."
I want everyone to win and that is why no one enjoys playing games with me. I don't care about winning. I just don't want anyone to lose.

Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

Thank you all, and Susan, you have identified the runner to whom I was referring. I'll revise my post to include that. And to anonymous, yes, I just don't want anyone to be a "loser." I want the beauty of the poem, the human body, the well-placed shot, the balance beam cartwheel to be appreciated for what it is. Regardless of the medal stand.

Jessie Carty said...

I'm not a particularly (note-adverb :) competitive person anymore and even when I was doing events (not sports related) that required competition I always felt a bit squeamish about it.

That being said, I do still enjoy the Olympics but I'm watching for the art and skill in what the atheletes have done more so than who wins or loses. I'm not into the medal count but I just enjoy seeing skill.

It is too bad that there have to be winners and losers but in order to have a loser you have to have a winner somewhere. As with poverty, you can't define against something without the opposite exsisting.

Great post.

tipper said...

I agree with your other commenters-I always feel sorry for the one who lost.

James Hogan said...

At the risk of disagreeing with the poet laureate... ;)

I hate to see anyone lose. I've spent plenty of seasons on losing teams, and it seems that most of the schools I've attended or taught at haven't ever broken through great barriers with their athletic prowess. I signed on to coach a losing track team when I was teaching, and it was there that I began to shape a new perspective on athletics and competition.

You see, there was something poetic and (forgive the overused adjective) awesome about watching the human body as it raced against not just other human bodies but against Time. Watching my students race, their eyes lit with fear and exhaustion and determination and a million other things, their minds nearly detached from their bodies...it all became a new aesthetic for me as their coach. How does one teach in this stratosphere? Because, after all, as their coach, I was their teacher, too.

So I taught them as best as I knew how, and that meant I called in others to teach them better ways to strengthen their bodies (because, as a typical English major, I wasn't very astute at physical training), and then I spent my time coaching them on other things: envisioning their performance; challenging themselves to higher standards; realizing that often it wasn't about the other competitors on the track but about the clock and about the ever elusive "personal best."

Most of all, though, I wanted them to have fun, and every time they "won"--whether that meant a new personal best time or winning a relay or sprint--I hoped I had built a model in which they could saturate themselves with the goodness that came with that accomplishment.

On the other hand, I also tried to use that same model to help them embrace the throes of disappointment. Just because they didn't cross the stripe first doesn't mean that they lost or that they were losers, just as the boy who loses the girl isn't truly unlovable and doomed to the priesthood--yet. I invited them to dive into those doldrums--really, really wade through the entire emotion--and then leave it. Focus on something else and learn from that experience.

I'm not sure if that was the right thing to do, but it sure seemed to make "losing" more bearable--and more productive. Davidson College, where I work, just ended one of the most exciting basketball seasons in its history. The team went undefeated in the Southern Conference and marched through three rounds of the NCAA tournament. They lost in the fourth round by two measly points to Kansas, and only then after a last-ditch three point attempt by Jason Richards veered just to the left.

I was at a pub here in Davidson when he missed that shot, which, had it gone in, would have sent us to the Final Four and possibly to a national championship (Kansas ended up winning the whole thing). The entire bar, packed with probably 500 people, fell silent as Richards' shot bounced harmlessly off the backboard. It was over--the whole run, the whole season was over. Then the strangest thing happened: the bar erupted into a long cheer, which turned into a standing ovation, which then turned into a bar pounding roar. We were in Davidson, hundreds of miles away from where the game was played, and yet we were cheering our team that had lost, praising them for their valiant season, praising them for their sheer determination in carrying this tiny liberal arts college in North Carolina all the way to the main stage. Weren't they great! we shouted.

We still lost. And it was okay. Somebody has to lose. Win, lose; innocence, experience, right? (Maybe I'll get a point for tying William Blake and basketball/track together.) I can only hope that what I was teaching them carried that same sentiment. Somebody has to lose. And we should be grateful for what we've accomplished, even if we didn't win.

Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

James, bless you for your post. This is the kind of response I want to have on this blog. I suffered through our daughter's swimming career in High School, made horrible by an adolescent coach who should have been fired. I dislike the Olympics because of how they've skewed real athleticism, in the name of capitalism. I also dislike seeing this same mentality applied to the arts. We should all have coaches like you when we engage in sports. And of course you are a poet, so that helps a whole lot.