Sometimes a Great Notion


Kevin Brooks and Sean Brooks, eds. Thru the Smoky End Boards: Canadian Poetry about Sports & Games. Vancouver: Polestar, 1996. 246pp.


Someday, a good and useful anthology of Canadian poetry about sports and games may be published. Thru the Smoky End Boards is not that anthology. Indeed—to borrow a line from Salman Rushdie’s review of Foucault’s Pendulum—reader, I hated it. Nevertheless, its failings at least suggest what future anthologists should avoid in the production of a similar volume.

Things do not get off to an auspicious start, as the Introduction grates in its attempt to unify the poems into a thematic whole. "The strong sense of being first and foremost an individual, yet always part of a community," the Brookses note, "may be the uniquely Canadian theme of Thru the Smoky End Boards" (14). I am not sure whether the aforementioned sense is "uniquely Canadian" or not (the sentiment certainly echoes Trudeau-era federalist rhetoric), but any attempt to find it in every poem published here is doomed to failure. Thematic generalities dominate the Introduction. The reader also learns that the "anti-hero is as prevalent in sports poetry as is the hero" (15) (numbers, please) and that "[s]ex, or gender, does seem to be everything" (16). Oddly (or perhaps aptly) enough, the vague generalities of the Introduction mimic the fuzzy generalized statements of much sports commentary, in which momentum is always shifting and a good defence always beats a good offence, or vice versa. The analysis of sports is often a matter of sloganeering and clichés, and rarely a matter of intelligent and empathetic analysis. However, in sportswriting and broadcasting, the worst moments are probably as much the result of the deadline or dead air as any deficiency in the commentator’s thoughts on sports. To read an introduction threaded through with muddied thinking and gross generalizations is distressing. Is time pressure the explanation here as well?

At least the Introduction explains why the quality of the poems in Thru the Smoky End Boards varies so widely: "We included the majority of poems we found relating to sport," (17) the Brookses note. If the anthology had used some form of historical and contextual apparatus to organize and explain the poems collected, this encyclopedicism might not be such a burden, but the editors have arranged the poems alphabetically by author under various sports subheadings in order to emphasize "the themes and issues that particular sports generate" (18). The anthology offers very little in the way of context or even dates of composition and publication, which leaves the reader adrift.

Organization and contextualization are, as noted, a problem. The underlying editorial assumption seems to be that the audience for this anthology will know sports figures and cultural and artistic figures well enough to understand their use in some of the poems. Very likely, that group will already have read most of the best work reprinted here. And yet the very subject of this anthology — poetry that deals with mass culture — suggests that its more probable audience would be the casual reader, and the high school or public school English class in which a teacher strives to introduce poetry to students who don’t know Keats from Yeats, but who do know Wayne Gretzky’s career point total, and may even understand the infield fly rule. Thru the Smoky End Boards serves none of these imaginary readers particularly well. The lack of specific dates for the poems cripples the anthology, as does the lack of notes to explain the significance of artists, athletes and events mentioned in certain poems.

One wonders, for example, when Ken Norris wrote "The Hawk", and why Wayne Gretzky’s father, described as "dying" (36) in Richard Harrison’s ponderously titled "On the American Express Ad Photo of Cardmembers Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky Talking After the Game" remains alive enough in 1996 to put in an appearance on Hockey Night in Canada1. Some context would also have given James Strecker’s "Hockey Haiku" more resonance. Apparently written during the Harold Ballard ownership era, and specifically the time of the Maple Leafs’ great decline in the early to mid-1980s, Strecker’s observation that "Men are like/ the Toronto/ Maple Leafs:/ they lose,/ they keep/ selling out"(75), gains some metaphorical heft from knowledge of the Leafs at that moment. A glossary explaining the significance of names such as Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, Bobby Hull and Manon Rhéaume2 (the last already all but vanished from popular consciousness) would at least have put some of the poems into perspective for those who do not know, or who have forgotten.

But lack of context is not the only problem. A trend toward mythic reductionism is at work in many of these poems, a transmutation of sports figures and events into simplified versions of themselves. Harrison’s Gretzky, downed by a body check and the emotional impact of his father’s brain operation, feels "the weight of the/ game flooding his limbs beyond bearing" (36). Upon retirement, Norris’s Guy Lafleur has his "spirit crucified on the ice at the Forum" (55). These are big burdens for professional athletes to bear. Al Purdy, at least, brings the proceedings back to some form of realistic appraisal in the middle of all this myth-making, noting that for "the roaring blue gods" who are hockey players "[w]hat they worry about most is injuries/ broken arms and legs and/fractured skulls..." (57). Purdy manages what Norris and Harrison do not — to sketch a world of sports in which athletes are simultaneously gods to some fans, and human beings whose livelihood relies on their constantly imperilled physical health.

Unfortunately, such poems as Purdy’s are not the norm. Far more common is a dull-minded, dully-expressed reductionism. Mark Cochrane’s description of Gretzky as "a wizard who is arranging the stars" (29) is so unequal to the description of what makes Gretzky memorable as a hockey player that it barely inspires a shrug. There’s simply no Gretzky there. Similarly, the observation in Norris’ "The Hawk" that André Dawson is "at the top of his game/ forever" (114) is obviously well-meant, but for the statement to be true, the Hawk deserves a poem more precise in its praise than phrases—"he can hit, throw run, flag down/ the most wicked line drives to center field,/ steal a base when it’s necessary" (114) — that have been applied by sportswriters to a battalion of ballplayers over the decades. There’s nothing here to make André Dawson stick in the mind as André Dawson—the same phrases, banal in their generality, could be applied to Barry Bonds or Joe DiMaggio without alteration. Norris also devotes his genius for banality to the combined histories of the Yankees, Mets, Expos and Red Sox in "Baseball," a poem that reduces the bizarre history of the Boston Red Sox3 to a stunningly dull "They haven’t won the series since 1918. And they lose in ways you can never anticipate" (112). Clunkers like "Baseball" abound in this collection, and no number of glossaries or appendices could change that. Perhaps collecting the majority of poems about a subject may not be such a wise editorial mandate. Even some of the good poets seem to be struck dumb by sports-related topics—or in other words, E.J. Pratt’s "Jock o’ the Links" is not the best work he ever did, although imagining it as read by James "Scotty" Doohan eases the pain a bit.

In an apparent gesture towards popular culture, a few popular songs appear, none improved by being rendered down into cold print. The Tragically Hip’s "Fifty Mission Cap," a miniature epic about dead Leafs great Bill Barilko, becomes skeletal on the page when stripped of lead singer Gord Downey’s melodramatic vocals and the angular instrumentation of the piece. Jane Siberry’s "Hockey" fares little better, for Siberry’s elliptical lyrics rely in part for effect upon her ethereal voice and the multilayered soundscapes and harmonies of much of her work. Stripped of sound, the words do not fly. Stew Clayton’s "The Bonspiel Song" possesses the cheerful normative rhythms of a bar sing-along, but this begs the question of why nothing from Stompin’ Tom Connors appears in the anthology. "The Hockey Song," "The Football Song" and "Songmobile Song" are all as insightful about sports and games as much of the material included here. And it’s a shame that, despite the weakness of the transcripted material in written form, something from Toronto’s Rheostatics couldn’t have been included. At the very least, the band’s 1987 hockey opus, "The Ballad of Wendel Clark," has "The Hawk" or Cochrane’s "99" beaten in terms of a lovingly rendered tribute to an athlete that also manages to suggest some of the qualities that make that particular athlete particular. But still and all, songs and poems are different things.

Yet there is some work in this anthology worth reading (or re-reading). George Bowering’s poems are, for the most part, excellent, although they will be familiar to most readers of Canadian poetry. The omission of "Elegy Five" from Kerrisdale Elegies stands out: a few of the lesser poems on baseball could surely have vanished in order to include it. There’s a lovely, violent gem about boxing by Milton Acorn, and a rumination on mothers and sons by Kate Braid that is done a disservice by the Introduction, which explains the poem in reductionist gender-deterministic terms. Other welcome selections include Al Purdy’s "Hockey Players" and "Homage to Ree-shard," and Alden Nowlan’s droll "Golf." Robert Kroetsch’s hockey poems—extracted from the longer work Advice to my Friends—look more than ever like Kroetschian finger exercises: a little song, a little dance, short poems that seem shorter than they actually are, and evaporate from the memory like yesterday’s sports highlights.

A shorter volume on Canadian poetry about hockey or baseball might have worked. The editorial mandate here, though, is peculiar in its apparent need to attempt to find poetry about every sport and activity, as if anthologizing were in part about being fair to every viewpoint and every poet. In its attempt to touch upon as wide a variety of sports and games as possible, the anthology becomes unfocused. The inclusion of Michael Ondaatje’s "Proust in the Water" under the heading of "Swimming" possesses a generalized correctness in relation to the anthology’s mandate, but a similar mandate applied to British literature might yield a section of The Prelude for a "Rowing" section. A better sub-title for the anthology might be Canadian Poetry That Involves Sports, Games, and Other Physical Activities—the net is cast so wide that one imagines all the other categories of physical activity that famous Canadian poems could fit into, given a zealous enough anthologizer. In the Introduction, the editors apologize for omitting Earle Birney’s "David" from the "Climbing" section of the anthology as they "have chosen to let the familiarity of ‘David’ speak for itself" (17). But couldn’t Birney’s poem go into the "Falling" section of the next anthology? And while "Swimming" is a section here, "Drowning" yields "This is a photograph of me" for a future edition, just as surely as "Rock Collecting" yields "Stone Hammer Poem" and "Lying Around" gives us "Heat." One can dream, anyway.

What is notable about Thru the Smoky End Boards is how flattened the world of sports and games becomes in the mesh of many of these poems, how boring. A rendition of either the sweep and depth of a player or a team, or the particularities of an individual moment, eludes most of the poets here. But to end on a positive note, the inclusion of Irving Layton’s "The Breaststroke" may give Thru the Smoky End Boards a life in the high school classroom after all. It probably won’t lead many students further into poetry, but it should serve as a surefire spur to adolescent giggles about the poem’s prototypically Laytonesque take on the eponymous swim stroke. Beavis and Butthead take note.




  1. Gretzky’s father, Walter, had a successful operation for a life threatening brain aneurysm in 1991, and is currently alive and well in Brantford, Ontario. In that same year, a hard body check from American defenceman Gary Suter sidelined Gretzky during the Canada Cup tournament (Almanac 337). [back]

  2. Manon Rhéaume became the first woman to play goal in an NHL game in 1992, stopping seven of nine shots in one period of exhibition season play for the Tampa Bay Lightning (Almanac 35). [back]

  3. The history of the Red Sox involves events that start to look tragicomically Kroetschian when strung together. From the trade of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1918 so that the Red Sox owner could mount a Broadway musical, to the 1986 World Series loss to the New York Mets in which the Red Sox seemed to have Game 6, and the Series, won (New York’s Shea Stadium electronic billboard was already flashing congratulations to the Red Sox) until their relief pitching collapsed, and a catchable ball squibbed between first baseman Bill Buckner’s legs, and the Mets won the game and then won the Series the next day: well, the history of the Red Sox has never been boring. [back]


Works Cited


The 1993 Information Please Sports Almanac. Ed. Mike Meserole. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.

Jon Stover