Poetry in Motion

As I am currently reading Aravind Adiga’s ‘Selection Day’, a tale of two young prodigious cricketers from the slums of Mumbai, i am reminded of a strange few days I spent with the kids in Arundel.

Cricket is a very popular sport in our playground, and on many occasions I have doused my trousers with tea (of regulation warmth, don’t fret) in the playground, having been harpooned about the body and limbs by an errant cricket ball. I play along with the kids every now and again, but these kids are serious and they play hard. I confess, two of the bowlers who have now moved on to Year 7 inspired something approaching genuine terror in me when they started their run-ups.

This playground has claimed one broken wrist from me. I don’t want it claiming another.

Perhaps for me – a mildly-interested observer of cricket matches with no playing experience – my engagement with cricket ought to have ended there on the playground, being bopped on the noggin every once in a blue moon between 10:45 and 11:00. This would have been the case were it not for the fact that our kids keep on winning things.

If I am being boastful, it is on their behalf not mine, given that I have had absolutely zero input or impact on any of their prowess. Nonetheless, as a reward for being London champions a few year ago, we were invited to spend three days at the famous Arundel Cricket Ground. It would be an opportunity for the team to work with professional cricketers, to improve their skills, to access some coaching and to compete against children who were similarly capable.

Our school had quite a few kids going – to my memory about 14 of them from across Key Stage 2 – so I was asked to go along with the teacher/coach who works with the cricket team.

I have written previously about the calm majesty of his coaching but as I have so recently read about Manju, Radha and Javed – and had their different styles of play so artfully described by the author – I remember a few occasions back at Arundel when some moments of pure beauty shone through.

Poetry in motion.

At Arundel, as the children were being coached I simply had to stand there and watch. My purpose was to be quite literally redundant. I was just there for three days to keep an eye on the kids at mealtimes and in the evenings really, so when they were being coached, I stood on the field in the sun, and could observe.

One of the Year 3 kids (who is now in Year 6 and is a force to be reckoned with – I shall give him the pseudonym of Arif) was really physically small. None of the other teams had brought kids so young, but our Year 3s could hold their own in the cricket pitch. They could, but they were just not at the same standard as the towering Year 6 kids from other schools.

Arif, a small-looking 7 year old, had struggles with bowling. The distance the ball had to travel from his hand to the wickets seemed twice as far as it did for all the older kids. He ran full pelt, and whilst he had a good technique and was holding the ball correctly, there was no power in his release. His arm was clearly off, even to me as a skill-free observer. Arif released a little too late, his arm was too bent and because of the follow-through of his hand, the ball tended to veer off to the right.

The passion was there though. Each time it was his turn for the drill, he ran faster and faster, channeling as much power as he could. A little better, but nothing that would take a wicket.

As I watched, one of the Year 4 kids, who we shall call Viran- only one year older and still one of the younger ones on the team but very precocious with it – put a hand on Arif’s shoulder. Viran – who went on to be a captain and is now in Year 7 – gave Arif some tips. He took hold of his arm, and showed him how his bowling arm should cut through, and what his other arm should be doing to build up the speed. Viran took his turn, whilst the Arif watched. Viral composed himself, locked his eyes on the middle wickets, centred himself, rocked back and began his run. He demonstrated exactly the technique he was trying to show Arif.

Then it was Arif’s turn. Arif took the ball and placed it between his fingers. He rested it on his collarbone and took his steps back. He ran up and I swear to god, the ball seemed to cut through time itself. It was a fluke, sure, but it was technically beautiful to observe. The arc and the bounce were perfect and at great speed. It hit the middle wicked with the precision of a sniper-rifle. Arif didn’t celebrate though – or certainly not as much as I would have done had I bowled it. He just got the ball, passed it on to the next kid in line, and waited for his turn again.

As an outsider to the sport, it is harder perhaps for me to see the beauty in it, but with Arif’s bowl that day – and having seen the conversation that led to it – I felt like I had witnessed something special. A tweak towards mastery.

The closest comparison I can make from my own faintly memorable sporting days was one time in Elmfield Park in Doncaster, where we used to play basketball on the weekends. I was never the best three-point shooter, as I played Centre, but I was known to every now and again have a lucky shot go in from deep on the court. Nonetheless, I would practise distance shooting really frequently, and on one morning when I was just practising in the park, I found my rhythm. It was like the sound had stopped. There was a feeling almost of ‘automaticity’; as soon as the ball was in my hands, the process had begun and ever shot felt identical and each one landed. There was an inevitability to it all. It was a magical feeling, truly.

The ‘poetry in motion’ here may have been in how it looked (though to a layman it could just as well have looked like an emaciated 15 year old white boy with tin ribs in a 2XL Harlem Globetrotters vest), but I think the poetry lay more in how it felt. It is hard to explain, given how many different processes go into something seemingly as simple as a shot in basketball, but before the ball had even left my fingers, I knew it was going in.

I imagine, when I see professional cricketers, there is something similar in the mind of the batsman as he sees the ball leaving the bowler’s hand – a feeling of foresight.

The shared ground between the 15 year old me and Stephen Curry is minimal, but it illustrates the beauty I’m talking about.

It is perhaps easier to find ‘poetry in motion’ in sport than in other spheres of life. We already have dedicated our senses to it and it already has our attention. We are attuned to the actions taking place, with the knowledge of the skill, strength and finesse being displayed. Perhaps there is nothing intrinsically mesmerising about a long table-tennis rally, but as we watch and draw from our own experience of not being able to play like this, we  can appreciate the spectacle in front of us as a spectacle.

But I think this poetry in motion is probably quite evenly spread in our day to day lives; perhaps we just miss it. So many unseen spectacles.

There is a peculiar beauty to the way the tube makes everybody shake, lean and judder in a perfect rhythm as it tears its way through a tunnel. There is limitless joy in standing still to watch different pedestrians getting splashed by the same puddle. Watching a crisp packet as it is lifted and tossed around in one of those miniature tornadoes that gather in playgrounds is a sight to behold just as ‘simply breathtaking’ as anything on Planet Earth.

And, of course, there is beauty to a well-constructed seamless GIF.

giphy-4

Watching as kids gain knowledge, understanding and confidence can yield moments of pure visual poetry too, I think.

Whilst this may be a very literal example, I once had a pupil who completed his entire exam, in test conditions, in just 10 minutes. He was sitting beside me, and I couldn’t help but notice he had full marks. Phenomenal. He diligently checked through his answers and proceeded just to sit in silence, looking into the middle distance. None of the other kids were seeking my help with reading questions, so I wrote a little poem – just eight lines or so – commenting on the brilliance of this kid’s brain and how great he is. He didn’t see me writing anything, and sat there with no expression on his face. I passed him the paper and watched him read the poem. As he read, I watched his mouth twitching into a little smile and then, as he reached the end, he just beamed. That’s not the poetic moment though. The poetic moment came immediately after when he looked around his table, one hand holding the poem and the other halfway towards being a fist-pump, and he desperately tried to catch someone’s eye to share in what had just happened, before remembering where he was, and that it was a test. He then just  looked back at his table, mouthed ‘thank you’, smiled and then silently kept turning the paper over.

With some of the kids, in the same way that there is a ‘thinking face’ that one can recognise as slightly strained, they have an ‘uncontrollable thinking’ face, that is triggered by the blend of excitement and opportunity.

One of my pupils this year and last is a formidable writer. Her grasp of vocabulary is stunning and she is able to write in a way that goes beyond being just technically sound; she manages to write to really express opinions, ideas and emotions. She can write in forensic detail and she can write with humour; she can write sensitive poetry and fart jokes. She is a pupil I often feel a bit guilty about, as she probably feels underchallenged. She throws herself into any task, and isn’t complacent, but she does not need the same checks and scaffolds her classmates need in order to grow as a writer.

One of the best sights to behold is how her demeanour changes when she is given some kind of task or challenge that is very free and will afford her a chance to do it her way. As a 9 year old, of course there will be lots of structure to her schooling – it is good for all the kids – but she, as a quite exceptional case, thrives on the open-ended too.

Generally she sits placidly doing as she ought to do really; chats when she is allowed to do so, focuses when she needs to focus, is silent and concentrates when she needs to do so. She is calm, as if taking this whole ‘school thing’ well and truly in her stride.

But when there is an opportunity for her to go her own way, she goes through a small transformation. Her eyes widen as she hears the task and she takes a deep breath. She blinks and looks up for a few seconds, and smiles a bit. As she looks up, she taps absent-mindedly on her paper, as if adding a rhythm to her thoughts. And then, once she has worked out how she wants to begin, she will hunch over her book, seeking no assistance and no reassurance for the next ten, twenty or even sixty minutes. Quickly but carefully she scribes down her thoughts. She won’t rush up to show it at the end of the lesson and she won’t ever shout ‘I’ve finished’. She will just put it in the box with everybody else’s, but come 8pm, as I hoist my pile of marking onto the sofa, I must confess to handling her book with a bit more care. I’m not a religious person, so this is as close as I get to a holy book. I am genuinely intrigued to see what has been produced and it is always fascinating; authentic, thoughtful, human stuff. The kind of deep thinking that makes you want to think deeply too; the kind of writing that makes you want to write.

Thomas Hardy, in ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’, wrote

“The poetry of motion is a phrase much in use, and to enjoy the epic form of that gratification it is necessary to stand on a hill at a small hour of the night, and, having first expanded with a sense of difference from the mass of civilized mankind, who are dreamwrapt and disregardful of all such proceedings at this time, long and quietly watch your stately progress through the stars. After such a nocturnal reconnoitre it is hard to get back to earth, and to believe that the consciousness of such a majestic speeding is derived from a tiny human frame.”

Perhaps we are, as Hardy says, a little too ‘dreamwrapt and disregardful’, but perhaps we don’t need to stand on a hill at nightfall watching our movement through space in order to experience this sense of epic gratification. It is there in the bus to work,  it is hiding in the stalls at the market and it is there in our classrooms, waiting to be seen.

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