Wright, Dove, Nystrom, Orr … Virginia is truly blessed with a massive array of poetic talent. For the last two years, the winner of the Ruth Lilly Prize has been a member of the Virginia MFA program. We have three poetry magazines catering to a diverse and intelligent audience that thirsts for the nectar of the Bard. Who could complete this pantheon of poetic puissance?
The silence of Virginia’s enigmatic coach belies his exceptional achievement. As a coach, he has led Virginia to several bowl games, brought the program to a new level of respectability, and earned millions of dollars for the departmental coffers. But this author would like to think he will not be remembered as much for his material gains and stolidly conservative game plan as his rich intellectual life, as an homme des lettres.
How can one even begin to grasp the breadth of his work? Much like William Carlos Williams, he drew inspiration from the seeming banalities of life. Behind his staid exterior lies a seething cauldron of sheer, gut-wrenching bile, albeit tempered with a love for life that puts him on a par with only Mother Theresa.
Students of Welsh’s poetry are often weaned on his undisputed masterpiece, “The Gut Check.” The symbolism is obvious. Obviously, he’s not speaking of Dixon, but rather railing against a world in which poetry is not widely read anywhere save Hallmark cards—a bloated globe personified as a sort of Rex Mundi projected on the hapless Dixon.
The Gut Check (Song of the Calipers)You there... #66, Dixon, Have you looked at yourself, Son? I’ve seen you over there in that Bryant Hall dining room, Son, gorging yourself on eclairs and puff pastry. Do you think Steve Emttman even knows what eclairs are? Now drop and give me twenty.
Welsh also innovates. Not content with mastery over conventional techniques, Welsh creates an “other,” a döppelganger who shares his thoughts, named Frank (presumably modeled also after the team doctor Frank McCue). He first appears in Welsh’s bittersweet “Fruit, My One Earthly Friend,” written after learning that his second cousin was the man who invented the nectarine.
Fruit, My One Earthly FriendYou know, Frank... Ever since I started eating fruit during games (oranges, bananas, guavas, the like) I’ve been more... Well I don’t let things get to me as much. A sense of Serenity: GODDAMMIT SYMMION! WE’RE Wearing ORANGE SHIRTS today. That was funny. I was talking about fruit. Then I said something about orange shirts. Orange, Frank. Frank; Get stuffed.
Here the tension between the nurturing and combative sides of Welsh’s narrative persona is clearly exposed. For Welsh, unlike William Carlos Williams, Spiro Agnew, or any of the other professional poets before him, lacks the luxury of a profession that reflects the concerns of his avocation. He must maintain the aggressive killer instinct that makes him the top-paid professional poet in his bracket. So, trapped by the conditions of his vocation—hemmed in by sweaty-thewed halfbacks, cornered by muscular cornerbacks—he can only express his frustration in splenic poetic outbursts. For example, in “If Wishes Were Dollars,” we see the conflict between the reminiscing poet and the angry, yet rueful coach:
If Wishes Were DollarsI was thinking about last year. It was an odd year. I should have seen it coming. After Kirby went, it was like... O, I don’t know. I miss the man. For THE LOVE OF GOD, WILL YOU LOOK AT THAT crap. That wouldn’t fly. That just doesn’t cut it.
Another recurring conflict in Welsh’s oeuvre is his responsibility to discipline his young players versus his desire to recapture his own lost youth. In “The Quick Hit as Romance,” he assigns the expression of this latter regret to his
signifier, Frank, who represents the later Welsh-as-coach, complete with creeping doubts about his failing physical prowess and his potency:
The Quick Hit as RomanceHoly Hannah, #72. You smacked that kid good. Looked like you enjoyed it. I like to see a kid enjoy himself, Frank. Remember how that felt? Oh, that’s right. You never played. The game. God, it feels good.
Welsh’s rueful duality is not entirely unconscious. Indeed, he shows a keen awareness of the techniques of his craft and their connections to the craft of coaching:
Futility, In and Of ItselfI think, on third and 26, you’ve got to just run it up the middle. Between the tackles, that’s my bread and butter. Gotta surprise the other team, Frank. Nothin’ as surprising as Way coming at you. Especially if you’re not expecting it.
The wry understatement of his colloquial “not” in the penultimate line represents both his genuine connection to his players and their argot and a deep understanding of the potential semiotic implications of negation.
In his later work, Welsh drops much of the expository language of the early poems in favor of a hyper-compressed syntax of declaration and scorekeeping. This minimalist form shows a naked Welsh, stripped of manufactured sentiment and Champion sweatsuits, at his most vulnerable and human. Yet, paradoxically, it is here that Welsh comes into his own as poet, statesman, and coach, entering poetic territory previously only claimed by Eliot and Berra. In “The Pendulum On Which the Earth is Hung,” Welsh incorporates elements of Japanese structuralism, learned at the Naval Academy, into a Western exposition of dualism and failure:
The Pendulum On Which the Earth is HungA small slab of leather and air lofted high overhead, almost cumulonimban The fifty year line, the fifty yard line Life truly is football My colon failed yesterday You got something for that, Frank?
Welsh’s vision also encompasses not only the sweet but the sour, the light and the dark, the raw and the cooked. A sense of Götterdammerung seems to pervade some of his later works. Critics have been struggling with some of his later, more “difficult” works (E. D. Hirsch, in his book The Anxiety of Influence and the Wide-Out Option, referred to his newer poems as “revelling in a Bukowski-esque underworld of sin, salvation and the buttonhook.”). Certainly one cannot see his pain in his demeanor; Welsh has always let the words speak for him. One can also see his flirtations with cummings in this representative work, composed during the Duke game:
[That Sweet Ineffable Reason] that sweet ineffable reason, franK. i t allboilsd o w nto FOR THE LOVE OF MIKE, P.J., RUN WITH IT, RUN WITH IT! oh, nuts, oh nuts & Oh, nuts. frank, get the iodine. frank? o nuts.
After all is said, of course, what will remain of George Welsh? Welsh himself has nothing to say about the subject, preferring to leave the self-eulogizing to poets like Whitman, whom he once called a “boob” and on another occasion a “nelly.” Welsh would rather play any day. His love for the twin games of football and life buoy his work in such poems as the formalist “Pork Products Transcend”:
Pork Products TranscendIt’s fourth and ten, boys, Florida State... You gonna eat that ’wurst, Frank? Damn.
Can anyone reply to that?
(originally appeared in The Yellow Journal, Vol. 7, No. 5. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved, although viewers are encouraged to share this URL with any folks they might know.)