Within ‘Sport’ Durcan delves into themes of father/son relationships, community, sports, and memory. The tone that is at times serious, humorous, and joyful allows Durcan to craft a mood that reflects those same emotions. With the addition of so many clear and original details, ‘Sport’ feels like a very real description of events within a person’s life.
The poem begins with the speaker describing an upcoming football game. His hospital’s team is going to play against another hospital’s team. The fact that the speaker is in the hospital is not really addressed in the text. It is another detail in the speaker’s personal life that within the larger themes of the poem is not important. What is important is the speaker’s relationship with his father. He drove him 50 miles to play this game and the son expresses his concern that he’s going to be a disappointment. Despite the size, strength, and backstories of the other team, (who have their own problems and reasons for being in the hospital) he was not intimidated.
The son knew, as goalkeeper that day, that he had to do everything he could to impress his father. He played very well, far from mediocre, which is exactly what he wanted. After the game, much to his astonishment and joy, his father was proud of him. He shook his hand and told him he’d done well. This is a moment in the speaker’s life that he remembers clearly years later. The poem ends solemnly with the speaker addressing the fact that “Seldom if ever” was he to rise to these same heights in his father’s eyes again.
You can read the full poem here.
‘Sport’ by Paul Duran is a sixty-two line poem that is divided into uneven stanzas. These stanzas range in length from nine to twenty-four lines. Durcan chose to write the poem in free verse. This means that there is no structure rhyme or rhythm. But, that doesn’t mean the poem is without unity, or completely without either rhyme or rhythm. (The poetic techniques that are discussed in the next section of this analysis will delve further into how figurative language and repetition can help to establish the feeling of a pattern.)One of the most useful techniques a poet can deploy is half-rhyme.
Half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example the long “a” in “game,” “away,” and “play” in lines five and seven. Or, the long “e” in “me” and “team” in lines fourteen and sixteen.
Durcan makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sport’. These include repetition, epistrophe, alliteration, and enjambment. The first, repetition, is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone or phrase within a poem. For example, place names like “Mullingar” are used multiple times, creating a feeling of pattered repetition, as is the longer phrase/team name “Mullingar Mental Hospital”. The same can be said for “Grangegorman Mental Hospital”. Another kind of repetition can be seen in the use of epistrophe.
Epistrophe is the repetition of the same word, or a phrase, at the end of multiple lines or sentences. For instance, the sixth and eighth lines end with “Hospital”. There are other examples further along in the poem that includes the words “down” and “game”.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. This technique is used frequently throughout ‘Sport’. For instance, in the twenty-third line with “full forward” and in lines fifty-six and fifty-seven with “mesmeric” and “mediocre”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are several examples within ‘Sport,’ but two include the transitions between lines nineteen and twenty as well as twenty-eight and twenty-nine.
There were not many fields
In which you had hopes for me
In an away game
Against Mullingar Mental Hospital.
In the first lines of ‘Sport’, the speaker begins by describing his father’s low hopes for him. It is commonly assumed that the speaker is Durcan himself, as there is some amount of his own personal history within the text. He uses the word “fields,” (a pun on a football field) to describe the areas his father did not have hope for him in. But, there was one area in which he showed promise, on the actual football field or in the realm of sports.
Durcan’s speaker looks back to his “twenty-first birthday” and how he was selected at that time to play “For Grangegorman Mental Hospital”. The game was against “Mullingar Mental Hospital”.
I was a patient
In B Wing.
To Mullingar to stand
On the sidelines and observe me.
Without explaining why he’s in the hospital, the narrator continues on with the story. He directs his words to his father recalling how he drove him to the field. At the time he was a “patient / In B Wing” but his father took him the fifty miles to “Mullingar”. This was not to stand and cheer for his son but to “observe” him. The use of the word “observe” in these lines tells the reader what they need to know in regards to Durcan’s, or the speaker he’s channelling’s, father. This man did not want to, or simply could not, show excitement. A reader can delve deeper into the text and assume that this has something to do with the stay at the hospital.
I was fearful I would let down
Not only my team but you.
Men with gapped teeth, red faces,
Oily, frizzy hair, bushy eyebrows.
In the next set of lines, the speaker expresses his innermost fear that he’d disappoint his father. This is the thing he cares about the most. When a reader considers the first lines and his acceptance of the fact that he’s good at only a few things, his reaction to this experience becomes even more understandable.
They played “Gaelic football” and the speaker was the goalkeeper. He uses an allusion to suggest that it wasn’t an easy game. There were men on the other team that were quite large in comparison to the speaker. They had grown up, male-associated features like bushy eyebrows and frizzy hair. From these lines, a reader can assume that the speaker does not look this way.
Their full forward line
Cases of schizophrenia.
The descriptions continue with Durcan adding that there were a few men over six feet tall and weighing fifteen stone. The three full forwards were all diagnosed with schizophrenia. His experience is very different than it might’ve been on another football team. Each player has been diagnosed with some mental illness or is staying in the hospital for a very particular reason.
There was a rumour
That their centre-half forward
His best friend had to emigrate
The men and their different problems, issues and histories are expanded on slightly in the next lines. This is done in order to give the reader a clearer understanding of what this game was like, particularly the lead up to it. The speaker becomes more and more aware of their histories. Such as that belonging to the centre-half forward. This person, supposedly, was an “alcoholic solicitor” and had “castrated his best friend”.
These lines are outrageous and are also meant to be amusing. They’re made even more so by the addition that declares that this man had “meant well” when he castrated his friend. The use of caesura in this line is effective.
To my surprise,
I did not flinch in the goals.
I made three or four spectacular saves,
That gave me the necessary motivation –
That will to die
That is as essential to sportsmen as to artists.
The speaker, reminding the reader of the role he has to play on the team, describes his own game. He made “three or four spectacular saves / Diving full stretch to turn / A certain goal around the corner”. This seems like something that his father would appreciate, and it’s clear that at the time the speaker hoped so too. He was clearly proud of himself and thought that he did a good job.
In lines forty-five through forty-eight the poet makes use of a technique known as anaphora. This is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. In this case, he uses the word “That”. It creates a list of the speaker’s reactions to his father watching him. He was excited, wanted to die and perform well.
The last line of this section, line forty-eight, is an interesting one. He compares himself, as a sportsman, to an artist. He sees both types of people as needing someone watching them, making them react, in order to perform. That presence is “essential”.
More than anybody it was you
I wanted to mesmerise, and after the game –
I may not have been mesmeric
But I had not been mediocre.
The poem starts to come to its conclusion in the next lines as the poet addresses his hopes for after the game. He wanted to “mesmerize” his father with his playing. He hoped that his team would defeat the other team, and they did and that his father would give his approval. Luckily, for this one moment in his life, the speaker did get his father’s approval. The scene plays out clearly in the poet’s head as he recalls what happens. He images the score, his father’s face, and the handshake that he got.
All that being said, the speaker knows that “mesmeric” might be asking for too much. But, he also knows that he had not “been mediocre”. From this line, it is clear that being “mediocre” is his fear. He does not want his father to see him playing and feels as though he wasted his time attending.
In your eyes I had achieved something at last.
Was I to rise to these heights.
In the last lines of ‘Sport’, the speaker adds that this was a real victory for him. He had finally achieved something worth achieving and his father had been there to see it. It was his twenty-first birthday when he played that game “on a winning team”. He remembers it now clearly, because of how he felt, but also how his father felt. He knows that he “Seldom if ever again” rose to those “heights’ in his father’s eyes. The solemn end to the poem makes the victory the speaker got to celebrate less celebratory and more mournful. The relationship that the speaker maintained with his father afterward had hit a peak of a sort that it would never quite touch again.