The Poet As Goalkeeper

Author: Kieran Furey

Poets and goalkeepers have a reputation for madness. As a poet who has done his share of goalkeeping, I suppose I have some qualifications for examining this hypothesis -- one in which I find a good measure of truth. My goalkeeping was at a low level. It began among classmates, continued among friends, and ended up

Poets and goalkeepers have a reputation for madness. As a poet who has done his share of goalkeeping, I suppose I have some qualifications for examining this hypothesis — one in which I find a good measure of truth.

My goalkeeping was at a low level. It began among classmates, continued among friends, and ended up straddling generations. Approaching fifty, when I play in the park with my son and his young friends I am, generally, still the goalkeeper.

Growing up in rural Ireland in the 1960s, I knew nothing of soccer beyond what I saw on black-and-white television. Gaelic football was my game. When I arrived as a boarder at Summerhill College, Sligo in 1966 at the age of thirteen I began to play soccer, but was so hopeless that I’d generally be let play only if I agreed to go in goal, where my Gaelic experience at least stood me in good stead. I hated it at first. The isolation felt like ostracism, and the responsibility was stressful. Outfield errors tend to be forgotten instantly in the heat of battle, but every goalkeeping mistake has the potential for disaster, and disasters tend to be remembered. Nevertheless, as the years passed I grew in confidence and in competence, and the time came when I wouldn’t have played in any other position, even in the unlikely event of being asked.

Neither had I, in the beginning, any love for poetry. In Irish classes I was repeatedly caned for inability to learn Gaelic poetry off by heart. Much of the poetry in English we came across in class lacked context. We knew and cared little about the poets and where they came from and what they believed and were trying to convey. We read poetry because, and only because, the teacher told us to. In subsequent years, once the element of compulsion was removed, poetry, like goalkeeping, grew on me. In time, I came to fancy myself as an amateur poet as much as an amateur goalkeeper.

I was too small to be a really good goalkeeper. While an agile shot-stopper, I lacked the stature to dominate the penalty area in the way that ‘keepers are supposed to. I tried to make up for this serious and literal shortcoming with a liberal dose of what, I suppose, with the benefit of hindsight, could be called madness. Opposing attackers never quite knew what to expect in the six-yard box, but came to realise that crosses and other high balls were likely to be unceremoniously cleared two-fistedly in fullblooded fashion. They thought twice before risking their necks, heads or other anatomical appendages. A touch of madness, seen by some as recklessness, worked. No injuries resulted, either to attackers or goalkeeper. Those flying fists became my trademark: my own particular manifestation of madness. This did not make me a great goalkeeper. But it did earn me a certain reputation on my own muddy patch.

It is the same with poets. Among us there have been, and of course still are, more than a few compensating for their lack of stature with a measure of madness. Any of us could reel off the names on a list of poets who gained notoriety by playing, or even being, the fool: alcoholics, womanisers, gamblers, brawlers. This works in different ways. Good poets have added to their fame — especially their posthumous fame — with sustained displays of lunacy. One thinks of Dylan Thomas. Others, much less gifted, have built regional reputations on the strength of drinks bought and consumed women gained, lost and abused court cases suffered character assassinations carried out or attempted, and so on. Neruda’s autobiographical prose — especially that dealing with his youth — is thickly populated with such characters. He was one of them himself, before he grew into sanity. Many, of course, have self-destructed, leaving a brilliant book or two before going unnecessarily to an early grave.

So much for confessions of madness. I now want to achieve some perspective by saying that, in my experience and in my belief, we poets are, in general, quite sane. After all, just as it takes a right-minded net-minder to keep a succession of clean sheets, it takes a poet in control of himself to dirty a succession of clean sheets with poetry worth the name. Yet, there is much madness about. Most of it is supplied by the world in which the poet lives and works, and it is often this which provides him with the best of his raw material.

An important part of the poet’s task is to try and capture the bright spark of madness that glints in the world’s eye and reflect it back in new colours to the world that produces it. The poet is a product of this world, and the poem is a product of the poet and of the world.

What constitutes a good poem? What effect should a poem have on the reader or listener? Probably every producer and consumer of poetry has his or her own set of criteria.

For me, a good poem is a gust of wind in the face, ruffling the hair. It’s a stone in the shoe, a laugh in church, a lie in the confessional, a fart in a perfume shop, a pig that flies, a small glass of urine shining on the breakfast tables of the idle rich. It’s the stone in David’s sling, the thing we don’t dare say in prose, or don’t know how to say in prose. It’s the hidden part of the iceberg, the sneer or the grin on the face of death-in-life, the twisted thought that helps straighten the crooked road of this world. Poetry is a permanent fighting back against the hopeless odds of life itself, a simple or complicated declaration that, for the moment, one is.

To be a poet, then, is to seek out and find the abnormal in life and, having found it, recognise it and give it a voice and a face. This is not always as simple as it sounds. The abnormal has a way of disguising itself as normal. Apparent normality does not live in things as they are, but in things as they seem. More exactly, it resides in things as they are seen, by our eyes and by our minds’ eyes.

Let me give some examples from personal experience. When I went to live in Quito in the mid 1990s, I was amazed by the number of armed guards I saw everywhere in commercial and well-off residential areas. For me, this was an obvious manifestation of abnormality, coming as I did from a Western European society where there was a reasonable measure of social and economic equality and where — partly as a consequence of this — even the police were unarmed.

Yet, within a matter of months, I had ceased to notice the guards. They had become for me as much a part of the environment as the extraordinary mountains that towered over the city, or as the illiterate construction labourers who earned the price of a hardback novel for a six-day week.

It was the same with the poverty of the indigenous peoples. At first I was scandalised by the sight of small children dressed in rags selling flowers and chewing-gum to motorists, and by barefoot old women begging on corners. But I got used to it. Gradually, the excluded races blended with the background, like shadows at sunset. Not out of sight, but out of mind. Like the mountains, part of a landscape still seen, but no longer really felt.

Nevertheless, from some stubborn, non-conformist corner of my mind, a small bird kept chirping in my ear that no, these mundane sights were not normal, but aberrations or unusualities encrusted and encancered in the living, geologic body of quotidianity. And I managed to make poetry out of them.

I believe that we must always struggle, day by day and hour by hour, against these blindnesses that reduce us, little by little and without noticing, to the level of desensitised beings, zombies, automatons destined only to obey orders without having any longer those essential and interrelated abilities known to every child: the ability to wonder, and the ability to question.

And now I wonder what can the poet do in this context? It seems to me that he can do this: he can try to write poetry that takes us, the readers, out of our rut, our unthinking daily routine, even if only for a few moments. Such poetry can have the value of a brisk walk in the park, provoking the realisation that a window needs opening to air the room we have been living in. A poem can even be like a day in the mountains or at the seaside, making us aware on returning that the city stinks with pollution.

Upping the ante and extending the simile, a poem could be imagined which might have the salutary effect of a week in a shanty town, making us aware of the abnormality of our own normality, of the extent to which we live in the cage of our own prejudices. Or why not a poem with the refeeshing effect of a month abroad? On our return, we have a broader perspective on what may be marvellous and what may be shameful in our own societies.

Maybe I’m dreaming. Perhaps poems can’t achieve any of this. But even then it must be said that the poet, like everyone else, has the right to dream. Then a poem can at least be a question in the dark, a protest in the graveyard, an unexpected splash of cold water on the face of things. Even if a poem is not the answer, it can still be the opposite of, for example, television. It can still be a small seed that grows, a word that burns, a cry in the cultural desert.

A part of the goalkeeper’s mind never relaxes, never allows itself to get used to the game, nor even to his own role in it. This is the wary, vigilant part: the little chattering monkey he keeps tethered in the corner of the net, that won’t let him get complacent, that says ‘No, you haven’t seen it all you will, at any moment, be confronted by the need to do something totally different — maybe even something extraordinary.

So, too, with the poet. When the moneyed hordes of blandness attack, wearing the slogans of TV, tabloid and glossy magazine culture, he is, after all, the last line of defence.