The Sport of Kings
Bucephala to the Nile, all lands southeast from Thrace.
In ten short years those kingdoms fall. Alexander rules.
Macedonia's king. In pictures he walks his horse and cools
the stallion's flanks, sweat-flecked by the conquest's pace.
Astride his horse, a Draft/Moor's Arab blend,
the Emperor of the West subdues Italy, then Spain.
In 768 Pope Leo crowns him the Frank king, Charlemagne.
From that year, European culture and the thoroughbred, descend.
Now I, beside my horse, with nylon braided tethers,
hold one of history's haltered legends by his lead.
I walk my trotter slow through clover fields
to dry the first heat's sweat from his chestnut withers.
His in-suck of air, high-pitched like a wind-raked reed,
subsides. His flaring nostrils slow. His labored breathing yields
as we meander through tall grass, above deep-buried peat.
In service to his king, El Cid walked beside his mount.
And did not knights, who served too many kings to count,
lay hands, like mine, on horses' ribs, to feel the pounding beat
of equine hearts? King Arthur, seeking Holy Grail,
sometimes walked to spare his horse...
and so nobility and noble bloodlines, in due course
came down to this...a race along a rail.
In the paddock I re-install his harness, adjust the girth,
and settle in the sulky for the race's second round.
While lining up to post, I think of things
like bloodlines reaching back. No, I'm not royalty by birth,
nor lineage, yet in each race we've run, I've found
a link to all of history in this sport of kings.
Copyright 2006 by Barclay Franklin
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, Barclay Franklin's "The Sport of Kings", appealed to me because of its positive outlook and conversational adaptation of the sonnet form. While the meter is irregular and approaches free verse in spots, the rhyme-scheme is that of a pair of Italian (Petrarchan) sonnets: two sets of abba abba cdecde.
In an Italian sonnet, the transition in line 9 (known as the "volta") to a different pattern of rhymes is supposed to mark the beginning of a new topic or line of reasoning. We see this clearly in the third stanza of Franklin's poem, where historical reflection gives way to the present-day activities of the speaker and his horse. A similar shift occurs between the fifth and sixth stanzas, as we move from King Arthur and the history of racing to the contemporary scene once more. This transition feels more muted because it is a return to a theme we have already visited, rather than an entirely new turn, and also because past and present were already commingled in stanza four. Because the author has taken some liberties with the meter and thematic structure we expect from a traditional sonnet, the casual reader may not notice how elegantly he has structured the interplay of past and present in this sequence.
When writing about the distant past, especially when a great swath of history must be surveyed in a few lines, the temptation is to fall back on stock images or a dry recitation of facts. The first two stanzas sometimes fall prey to the latter error. However, the poem as a whole has the vividness of lived experience because of Franklin's reverent attention to the equine personality, physical behavior and emotional bond with the human rider.
Taking a "horse's-eye" view of history is a creative way to awaken our feelings of personal connection to these remote events. A familiar legend can be given fresh life by reinterpreting it through the perspective of a formerly minor character. Examples include Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (Hamlet), Virginia Woolf's novel Flush (the love story of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as told by her dog), and W.H. Auden's poem sequence The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'. Often, this technique is used satirically, to puncture the authority of the official version and bring out insights that it had repressed. (See, for instance, T.P. Perrin's "Thersites" from our 2005 War Poetry Contest.) "The Sport of Kings" has a gentler intention, to humanize the past and evoke the fairy-tale atmosphere of kinship between man and beast.
We don't dare identify with Charlemagne or Alexander the Great, nor imagine that we could see the world through their eyes, but we can vicariously participate in their glory through the more accessible role of the king's horse. (It's appropriate that the poem begins with the word "Bucephala", the city that Alexander founded in honor of his horse, Bucephalus.) Although the world of the kings is lost to us, the timeless nobility and beauty of the horse, before which even King Arthur bowed, is a historical constant that overcomes the divisions between past and present, or king and commoner.
This poem is strongest when describing the physical sensations of horse and rider, and weakest where it becomes wordy with historical exposition. Lines like "he walks his horse and cools/the stallion's flanks, sweat-flecked by the conqueror's pace" are full of compressed energy and hard consonants. Notably, the stressed syllables are more closely packed together in this line, as compared with "In 768 Pope Leo crowns him the Frank king, Charlemagne./From that year, European culture and the thoroughbred descend." This prosy sequence did not have the same well-wrought tightness and personality. This was one spot where I felt the limitations of Franklin's decision not to stick to a particular meter.
Could some extraneous information be cut here? I'm not sure we need to single out a particular date, when the other historical events are not so specified. "768" adds a lot of syllables that break the roughly iambic meter we've heard so far. Moreover, the abstraction "European culture" sounds too academic and lengthy in a lyric poem such as this. Suggestion: "Pope Leo crowns him the Frank king, Charlemagne./From thence Europe and its thoroughbreds descend." This revision allows a double meaning for "thoroughbreds" as horses and also their noble riders. Among the other lines I would tighten is the last line, where eliminating the "of" in "all of history" nudges the meter back toward iambic pentameter. One could also consider cutting the "we've run" in the penultimate line for the same reason.
Other fine moments in "The Sport of Kings" are the alliteration in the third stanza ("hold one of history's haltered legends by his lead") and the lovingly observed mechanics of how this powerful beast moves and breathes. The lines from "I walk my trotter" to "deep-buried peat" are the heart of the poem, with every word rightly placed in a fine sprung rhythm and woven into a compelling texture of sounds. This is no abstraction, but a flesh-and-blood animal, gracing us with his mysterious presence. By the time the narrator leans in to feel the horse's great heartbeat, the reader cannot help but hear it too.
Where could a poem like "The Sport of Kings" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Abilene Writers Guild Contest
Postmark Deadline: July 31
Prizes up to $100 in various genres including rhymed and unrhymed poetry, short stories, articles, children's literature, and novel excerpt
Wells Festival of Literature International Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by July 31
A good contest for both emerging and intermediate poets, this award offers 500 pounds and a reading at Wells Poetry Festival in Wells, Somerset, in October; fees in UK currency only
Oregon State Poetry Association Contests
Postmark Deadline: August 28
Twice-yearly contest offers prizes up to $100 in categories such as open-theme, formal verse and humor
Surrey International Writers' Conference Writing Contest
Entries must be received by October 25
Canadian literary conference offers prizes of C$1,000 each for poetry, fiction, nonfiction, children's literature, by authors aged 18+
Robert Frost Poetry Award
Postmark Deadline: September 15
$1,000 and public reading at festival in Massachusetts for poems in the spirit of Robert Frost
This poem and critique appeared in the July 2006 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).