Pugilist poetry

Declan Ryan – Fighters, Losers (New Walk Editions)

Some time ago, a video began to circulate in which a certain disgraced actor performed a publicity stunt, reading out Gabriele Tinti’s poem ‘The Boxer’ to camera. I wasn’t quite sure what I thought about it.

Mostly I thought that Tinti’s poem conveyed over rather a lot of lines the idea that boxing was important, and that you’d better not mess with a boxer, but did little else.

I had heard some first-hand accounts of being a real boxer from an old colleague at a former job (‘and that’s why I’m stuck on Oramorph’), and I rather thought someone could do a better job of writing poems about the reality of it.

Having read this interesting poetry pamphlet, I think Declan Ryan might well be that someone.

On a first reading, what struck me was the writer’s effective use of an almost prosaic medium. Most of the lines are long, and the breaks are mostly steady, resulting in a credible narrative verse:

Diego Corrales has risen from the canvas

and his cornerman has placed a clean gumshield in his mouth

to replace the one he spat out.

He’s just been knocked down for a second time,

in this tenth round, by Jose Luis Castillo,

but now he’s standing, and the fight resuming. 

The poems also perform an interesting tense shift. Each piece starts in the present tense, usually depicting a moment of particular glory for that boxer, and then looks into the future:

Two years from tonight, Corrales will lie dead

on the Fort Apache road in Las Vegas, (…)

When Marciano’s mother is told the news she will say

‘Figlio Mio, Figlio Mio, Corra di mama!’

Joe Louis will kiss the lid of the closed casket, (…)

Technically this breaks the unity of time, but I think we have here a commendable grapple with the tragic form, which is very difficult to get right. In fact tragedy is so difficult that much of contemporary poetry goes first-person confessional instead, this being an easier way to obtain the reader’s sympathy. Tragedy requires poise.

That the collection is a series of biographical studies adds to the effect. Because the story of the rise and the fall keeps repeating, I’m ready to believe it deserves writing about. Also in this connection I liked the writer’s commitment to an intense, troubling subject throughout the whole book. You certainly can’t accuse Ryan of chasing easy laughs. In fact I couldn’t find any laughs, as such, but still there are moments of grim irony and plenty of tough love.

As with war poems, it’s worth asking the stock question whether these poems ‘glorify violence’. The answer is yes, in so far as the high point in each poem is a boxing match, but the poems distinguish between this ‘fair’ fight and the unfair kind, as in ‘Jehovah and the River’ which laments the violence of Mobutu Sese Seko, or as in the multiple poems where a boxer self-destructs or is made a victim.

I suppose the relevant test is whether a reader who wasn’t very interested in sport could get something out of these poems. I did, and the only sport I follow is darts (low effort, high precision).

Going back to the medium, which I liked, I did wonder what might happen if this almost-prose style – where the stresses fall where they would in spoken English, and are not often arranged into a repeating rhythmic beat – were exchanged for something more percussive. In fact the final poem of the book does this already, a staccato treatment of Jonathan Rendall (’12 bags on the nags, slots, coin toss’).

I also thought an interesting sequel might be an extensive, book-length treatment of one of these big personalities, perhaps including the voices of other figures in the life (I felt Rocky Marciano’s mother had more to say).

I’d say Ryan’s book is well worth investigating. New Walk Editions is a relatively new poetry publisher specialising in short but to the point pamphlets, and I have found a lot of interest in the books of theirs I’ve picked up.

This is the first of the New Walk poetry pamphlets I have read, and it’s a commendation. I look forward to seeing what comes next.

– Christophe Riseco 

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