Footballers as Poets as Footballers: The Rhyme & Reason of Andrei Arshavin & Joseph Brodsky

by Clerical Staff

Given the chasms of experience and upbringing and dress-sense separating poets form footballers, equivalence drawn between them will have to be formal (unless we get what we all crave and deserve and Dimitar Berbatov starts dressing like this). Thankfully, form is also the most amenable route to the analogous dynamic between sport and literature. Leningrad poet Anatolii Naiman – himself a gifted purveyor of pristine couplets like neo-classical porticos – once offered this light-hearted, earnest explanation:

when you see what Pele can do with [a ball], you suddenly comprehend what an amazing movement your legs are capable of- he can do what a normal person cannot. A poet can move, too, in an entirely unexpected direction, but all the same it’s legs that are moving forward […] If we’re shown in slow motion what [the sportsman] does, each and every element is form.[1]

Let’s take this proposition seriously and literally – if only because to note that the effect of beauty derives from manipulation of formal attributes would be banal even for these humble surroundings. What are the attributes in question, say for football and poetry? It’s a matter of meter and rhyme schemes and assonance; quickness of feet and pitch dimensions and defensive formations. And in this medial whirlwind, it is diverting, informative, and necessary to draw out and thread together footballing and poetic tricks and tropes, to assert their cultural equivalence. Poetry might not need the surplus credence (Gove and Willets haven’t been in office long enough, yet), but football could do with the friendly arm around the shoulder.

Pier Paolo Pasonlini, the fated Italian film director of such controversial fare as Salò: the 120 days of Sodom, asked himself the same thing. A fanatical Bologna tifoso, who once offered a role in his production of The Canterbury Tales to midfielder Giacomo Bulgarelli, Pasolini once remarked that ‘Football is a system of signs, a language’, in which catenaccio was ‘prose… based on synthesis and organisation’, and poetry was dribbling.[2] No doubt he had this generic division in mind when he labeled legendary Cagliari striker Gigi Riva, famed for his reckless bravery and primal power, ‘a realistic poet’. A question, then, for those of a certain disposition: when you watch your favourite players, whose poetry do they bring to mind?

For many reasons – although primarily because he is a Leningrad hero – my favourite player is Andrei Arshavin. When he is attuned to his surroundings, and not trying to deal with the fact that most of his other colleagues are not Cesc Fabrègas and so cannot keep up with him, Arshavin can turn out a viciously good dribble. There was a period, at the end of his time with Zenit, through the Euros and the absurd spectacle of his first half-season with Arsenal, when I thought that there would ultimately be a trademark Arshavin play. This would involve him hurtling towards the goalline wide of the post, too short and low to halt, until defenders and goalkeeper had decided that his velocity and the angle to goal were too severe to represent real danger, only for Andrei to comprehend the real dimensions of play, the real spaces available to the keen eye, and find either the net or the debilitating cut-back. You can see two rough examples for Arsenal here (Brian Phillips of Run of Play described the latter at the time as the destruction of the 1 degree angle).

With pleasing geographical consistency, Arshavin’s dribble reminds me most of the poetry of Joseph Brodsky, who also left Leningrad to adapt to the rigours of the West. More precisely, it reminds me of Brodsky’s rhymes. Brodsky was a fierce, vituperative advocate of meter and rhyme in the latter half of a twentieth century that he felt had given up too easily on the ‘inherent nobility’ of form; and for him, the end of the line was the most important moment of the poet’s career, the point at which he guarantees through the phonetic knell of the rhyme the longevity of his work and hence his identity (in the same way, if Arshavin does not manage to squeeze or arrow the ball into the goal, the dribble is so much formless mush. Actually, ‘formless mush’ is probably how blinkered Arsenal fans would describe Andrei’s last, criminally underrated season with the Gunners).

This philosophical imperative to achieve formal ‘nobility’ necessitated the young Joseph to twist his lies into sometimes incongruously brilliant shapes, in order to hit the rhyme. Here is the last quatrain of his translation of his own ‘In Memory of Clifford Brown’:

It’s no a simple space, it’s a nothing, with

alts attaining in height what they lose in colour,

while a spotlight is drifting into the wings,

aping the ice floe and waxing polar.

The use of the conjunction ‘with’ to set up the mechanism of the rest of the sentence is classic Brodsky; the two gerunds of the last line confound each other, leaving the undetermined ‘polar’ (noun or adjective?) as the blank, white cadence that it simply has to represent, poignantly rhymed with and superseding ‘colour’. In Leningrad, in Russian, his mastery of this brand linguistic shimmy was fairly unquestionable, although once he transferred to New York and the language of his hero, W. H. Auden, the effect sometimes went awry, contorting his stanzas into clangers. In 1994 he offered a typically self-aware recognition of this, in ‘To My Daughter’:

Besides, you may still remember a silhouette, a contour,

While I’ll lose even that, along with the other luggage.

Hence, these somewhat wooden lines in our common language.

Likewise, Arshavin could lord it over the Russian scene, and when emboldened by the tactics and teammates of Zenit at their modern peak, he could lord it over the likes of Leverkusen and Marseille in the UEFA Cup too. Yet in London, his perfect rhymes – spotting the space for ‘polar’ at the end of the exhausting poetic line of the dribble, finding the angle that the reader (or Paul Robinson) cannot see – have seemingly been all too scattered. Brodsky may have aborted his own development as an English-language poet by trying too hard to replicate the undulations of Auden, which raises the question as to which player Arshavin might be seeking to remember on the field (I offer Oleh Blokhin as a desultory possibility). In any case, both these men from Leningrad, the city ‘where a man doesn’t cast a shadow, like water’, realise despite their idolatries that the most infuriating delivery is redeemed by a sharp punchline. In the end, they won’t bat an eyelid if those ensconced in the Clock End come to the same realisation.

[1] David MacFayden, Joseph Brodsky and the Soviet Muse (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000), p. 18.

[2] On Pasolini and calcio see John Foot’s superlative Calcio: a history of Italian football (London: Harper Perennial, 2007), pp. 327-29.

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