Normally I end my blog with a "Sports Poem of the Day". Today's poem leads into the Blog.
To an Athlete Turned Poet by Peter Meinke
(for James Dickey)
Fifteen years ago and twenty
he'd crouch linebacker going tackler
steel stomach flexing for
contact contact cracking
through man after man weekend hero
washing the cheers down
with unbought beer
and now his stomach's soft his books
press out his veins as he walks
and no one looks
but deep in his bone stadium
the roar of the crowd wells
as he shows them again
crossing line after line
on cracking fingers heart red-
dogging with rage and joy over the broken backs
of words words words
James Dickey (1923-1997) was one of America's finest poets. He won the National Book Award and served as our country's Poet Laureate. Until his retirement, he taught poetry and creative writing at the University of South Carolina. He became known outside literary circles after his novel Deliverance was made into a movie. Dickey had a minor role as the sheriff in that popular thriller. In high school, Dickey played football. In college he played one year before joining the air force and serving in the Night Fighter squadron during World War II.
While thinking of Dickey's poetry and the incongruity of his being a football player - by all accounts a fierce one - it occurred to me that this poem could have been dedicated to a number of different football players turned artists - Mike Reed of the Bengals, for one; Bernie Casey of the 49ers for another.
Reed was an All-American from Penn State when he was drafted in the 1st round by the Cincinnati Bengals in 1970. He played there for 4 years and made the Pro-Bowl 2 of those years. His BA was in music. When he retired he followed his musical talent, playing the piano and composing. He performed with the Utah, Dallas, and Cincinnati symphonies. After his classical musical career, he wrote country music, winning the Grammy Award for his song, "Stranger in My House." Reed is enshrined in the Nashville Hall of Fame. On the football field, he was one tough sonovabitch.
So was Bernie Casey, an All-American receiver at Bowling Green University, the same University attended by Warrirors' great Nate Thurmond. Casey became the 1st round pick of the 49ers and went on to play six years for the Niners and 2 for the LA Rams before leaving football for an acting career. Casey is also an acclaimed painter.
The combination of athlete and artist is, on its surface, an odd alliance of mind and body. But Casey and Reed are not unusual singletons in the world of sports. There are many other such "Odd Jocks." Here are just a few: Tommy Hiensohn, Celtics and painter; Florence Kersey Joyner, track and abstract painter; Peter Gent, NFL Dallas Cowboys and novelist; Bernie Williams, Yankees and classical/jazz guitarist.
Having discovered enough jock/artist combos to conclude such people are not anomalies, I started looking for a commonality. Creativity had to be one, and spontaneity (or improvisation) another, but I couldn't find anything definitive that linked the two disciplines until I came across a blog by Semir Zike, a professor of Neuroesthetics @ University College London. It sites a study published in PLoS One. Scientists studied the activity in brains of jazz pianists while they were improvising and came to the conclusion that the frontal lobes of the pianists' brains were deactivated. "The [frontal cortex] may be involved in assessing whether behaviors conform to social demands, exert inhibitory control over inappropriate or maladaptive performance." The blog goes on to say, "Any artistic achievement that is tailored to conform to social demands rather than to the real, uninhibited, feeling of its creator, is destined not to reach the heights of achievement, or even fail." It is only when an artist is dis-inhibited that he or she can reach the heights of artistic achievement.
I don't think it's a stretch to substitute the word athlete for artist in this case. All you need to do is talk to athletes and ask them to explain the "Zone." they can't, fully. And it is not a mistake that the greater the athlete, the more time he or she spends in the Zone, where achievement transcends thinking.
If this indeed links artist and athlete, Michael Jorrdan and Thelonious Monk, the greatest improvisers in their professions, have a lot in common.
What my musings are all about...
Blogging might well be the 21st century's form of journaling. As a writing teacher, I have always advised my students to keep a daily journal as a way of organizing their thoughts for future writing projects, a discipline I have unfortunately never consistently practiced myself. By blogging, I might finally be able to follow my own good advice.
The difference between journaling and blogging is that the blogger opens his or her writing to the public, something journal- writers are usually reluctant to do. I am not so reticent.
The trick for me will be to avoid cluttering the internet with more blather, something none of us need more of. If I stick to subjects I know: sports and literature, I believe I can avoid that pitfall. I can't promise that I'll not stray from time to time to comment on ancillary subjects, but I will make every attempt to be interesting and perhaps even insightful.