Photograph: Werner Schmidt

Monday, March 23, 2009

Have you read any good rowing poetry lately?

On getting the question what poetry is, an editor once replied: “It’s that which can’t be edited.” This being true or not, honestly there is some bad poetry out there, which some editing could have improved, or some influential good editor might even have saved us from entirely.

Now, are there any good poems on rowing? Yes, however, it is as Chris Dodd writes in his Boating, “A volume of good rowing poetry would be a slim one, indeed” (in the Small Oxford Books series, 1983).

There is of course the famous rowing coach Steve Fairbairn’s marvellous “The Oarsman’s Song”, which begins

The willowy sway of the hands away
And the water boiling aft,
The elastic spring and the steely fling
That drives the flying craft.

It is in this poem the oarsman

All through the swing he hears the boat sing

which is where this blog got its name. Steve Fairbairn (1862-1938) is purely remembered as a coach and a writer of rowing books that taught his rowing methods, Fairbairnism, and not as a poet. Nevertheless, I have to say that he had a poet’s mind. How else would he come up with a maxim as “The dreamier a crew looks, the nearer it approaches to the poetry of motion”?

Another rower, coach, and writer who formed wonderful rowing poetry was R.C. Lehmann (1856-1929). When he was not on the river rowing or coaching, he was contributing articles and poems for The Granta, the Cambridge undergraduates’ magazine that he founded, or for the satire magazine Punch. Lehmann showed as much skill at the pen as at the oar. Perhaps his most renowned rowing poem is “The Perfect Oar” in which a stanza goes:

His hands are ever light to catch;
Their swiftness is astounding:
No billiard ball could pass or match
The pace of their rebounding.
Then, joyfully released and gay,
And graceful as Apollo’s,
With what a fine columnar sway
His balanced body follows!

Some years back, when I was writing an essay on rowing poetry in Swedish, I was surprised to find that one of Sweden’s most loved poets during the twentieth century, Anders Österling (1884-1981), a long-time member of the Swedish Academy, had written a rowing poem. It was published in his collection of poetry called Livets värde [Value of Life], which was published in 1940.

The poem is called “Kapproddbåten” [The Racing Shell] and the first stanza reads:

Kapproddbåten bäres ut i kvällav smärta ynglingar i blåa ställ,
som lyfta den med årtakt i sitt blod raka armar som en festklenod.

An off the cuff translation would go something like this:

The racing shell is brought out this evening
by slender young men, dressed in blue
who lift it with strokes of the oar in their blood
on straight arms as it was a celebrated treasure piece.

But these poems are from yesterday you might say. Is there not something newer? As a matter of fact there is. Last Christmas, Santa was kind enough to give me the American poet Billy Collins’s latest collection of poems, Ballistics (2008) in which you will find a rowing poem, “Brightly Colored Boats Upturned on the Banks of the Charles”. I normally like Collins’s poems, but I have to confess that this one left me discontented and discouraged. The problem, of course, is that the poet knows nothing about the sport of rowing, and therefore gets some major things wrong that, I might add, non-rowers almost always get incorrect.

Let us have a look:

Brightly colored boats upturned
the banks of the Charles,
the sleek racing sculls of a college crew team.

[- - -]

I pictured a lighter version of myself
calling time through a little megaphone
first to the months of the year,

then to the twelve apostles, all grimacing
as they leaned and pulled on the long wooden oars.
Collins managed to make two (rowing) mistakes on line three: as he – or the person in the poem - is probably looking at some fours and/or eights, and not some sculling boats (sculling: the rower or sculler has two oars or sculls each), the correct term would be shells or boats. The second mistake is “crew team”. On Bill Miller’s great rowing site Friends of Rowing History ( you will find the following under Proper Rowing Terminology & Helpful Notes: “When you use the term crew you shouldn't use the term team. Traditionally, crew means a team of rowers. To say crew team is redundant. You may say rowing team.” (For more terms on rowing, please click here.)

I like the humour in “I pictured a lighter version of myself”. I mean who would not like to be lighter? However, nowadays there are no twelve-oared shells around, not even for apostles. The last twelve-oared shells that I know of belonged to the London Rowing Club in the 1870s. Another questionable thing occurs on the last line as it is said that the oarsmen “pulled on the long wooden oars”. The only wooden oars these days are the painted so called trophy oars that hang in the club rooms, or, if in Britain, in the bars of the rowing clubs.

It is not easy to write a poem whether it is dealing with rowing or not, I know. A couple of months ago, I actually had a go myself. One of my Swedish rowing friends had a special birthday coming up and I wanted to send him a rowing book and an English sonnet. After having struggled for three days with the fourteen lines, the special rhyme scheme, and counting syllables, etc, I felt like the poet in William Hogarth’s “The Distrest Poet”. And I do not even know if I could call the finished result a “rowing poem,” although I managed to drop in the word “oar”.

To not embarrass my friend or myself – nor would I like to jeopardize our friendship - I am not going to post my sonnet here. Just trust me, I am not a poet…

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