About five years ago, a professor at the US Naval Academy got into hot water. Why? He included a football poem for students to read in his English class. The poem was about football, it’s true, but like any fine poem, it’s about far more than that. Professor Bruce Fleming’s decision to teach “Kong Looks Back on his Tryout With the Bears” was a blessing to me even though I don’t know him.
The “Kong” poem was written by William Trowbridge. It’s a magnificent poem, using the fictional character of King Kong and his demise as a metaphor for passing glory often vested in high profile football players. It made me laugh at times, but it also made me consider the emotion we vest in athletes and others and how soon we forget or scorn them when their own vulnerabilities do them in.
Fleming got into trouble not because he did anything wrong, but because two females in the class somehow saw racial and sexual persecution in the words in the poem. Frankly, those females in that class should repeat their education starting with first grade and learn to read. That’s beside the point. I think Trowbridge’s poem stands as one of the greatest ever written using football as symbolism.
The prof was eventually cleared after what amounted to an academic Inquisition, admittedly one without instruments of physical torture.
I found a copy of the poem “Kong Looks Back on his Tryout With the Bears” online. It’s at one of those Yahoo Answers pages. The individual asking the question, ‘Is this a poem…” obviously should not be writing or posing questions about poetry anywhere. If you can’t see the brilliance in this poem, I am sorry for you. You are missing a beautiful work.
Trowbridge’s work remains my top favorite football poem, followed by “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” James Wright wrote this one. It’s less complicated than Trowbridge’s, and it has no humor, but humor isn’t a requirement for a poem.
The Poetry Foundation has a page of football poems for your amusement. Click on the title to read each poem. Another of Wright’s poems is posted there, and it’s definitely more complex than the one I cited above. It’s also a bit more pedantic, using sports and war motifs in tandem. “A Mad Fight Song for William S. Carpenter, 1966” is a time travel piece back to the blighted Vietnam War. The beginning of the poem, though, evokes the debate about head injuries we hear so much of today regarding pro players.
Another of the PF-recommended poems is by another favorite poet of mine, Timothy Murphy. “Prison Chaplain” touches on football but the poem explores far deeper topics. It’s so perfectly crafted—all of Murphy’s work is perfectly crafted.
Poetry can entertain, infuriate, and inspire. Much of today’s poetry is eminently forgettable, but there are still poets out there with real power in their pens. The dustup Professor Fleming experienced is a perfect example of the power of words. As for the dustup being a blessing to me, I said that because I fell in love with Trowbridge’s work as a result of reading about Fleming’s persecution by way of a military website.
So this weekend if you’re heading to a stadium to tailgate or you’re heading to your TV for some couch-gating, try reading a football poem or two. In Trowbridge’s poem, King Kong speaks to us about his unrequited love:
“…And if it weren’t for love, I’d drop
this shrieking little bimbo sixty stories
and let them take me back to the exhibit,
let them teach me to rumba and do imitations.”
Yes, Yahoo Answers, this is most definitely poetry.
*Featured photo is from the US Library of Congress. It was taken between 1920-1930. It is from the National Photo Company Collection.
(Kay B. Day/Sept. 21, 2018)