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Poem by David Lehman, “September 18”

About the Poem

 


Oscar De la Hoya

 


Felix Trinidad

Poetry Goes to the Fights

De la Hoya, Trinidad, Poetry—Decisions, Decisions, Decisions!

September 18, of 1999—two electrifying champions met in the Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas, and I don’t mean over a blackjack table or martinis down at the bar. The WBC title fight pitted undefeated Oscar De la Hoya, then and now the biggest draw and most marketable non-heavyweight in the history of the sport, against undefeated Felix Trinidad, the most celebrated Puerto Rican fighter. And as if that’s not enough “mosts,” the two welterweights (147 pounds) would go twelve rounds to produce one of the most controversial decisions of recent years, an outcome that fight fans and sports writers—occasionally, when the spirit moves them—still decry or defend. Did Trinidad really earn the belt, or did the judges unfairly penalize De la Hoya because they didn’t like—at least two of the three didn’t like—the way he made Trinidad pursue him around the ring in the final rounds, a turn of strategy in which the Olympian Golden Boy demonstrated more fleetness of foot than speed of hand?

 

Mind you, De la Hoya seemed to many, and to me, to have prevailed over a skilled and dangerous opponent for at least seven of the first eight rounds, enough to assure his victory. Rule is, he who wins the most rounds gets it, regardless if these rounds come at the beginning or the end. And when the last bell dinged, the CompuBox punch analysis showed De la Hoya landing 263 out of 648 punches against Trinidad’s 166 out of 462. On the other hand, Trinidad landed more power punches, and—in boxing as in everything—quality can sometimes outweigh quantity. At least he seemed to land more power punches, but it’s not always easy, even for experts, to rate the true effect of a punch unless you’re the one on the receiving end of it.

 

And imagine, here most people go around thinking the outcome of a boxing match is relatively cut and dry, objective and verifiable, compared to, say, oh…judging the best manuscript of poetry in a publication contest. But those people who believe that aren’t far wrong. Odds are it will be easier to get a just and right decision on a fight than on poetry contest to determine the best manuscript out of two, three hundred. I should know. I do know. I’ve got my own secret special CompuBox stats that reveal the percentage of wrong decisions made in boxing v. wrong calls in poetry. If there were a Poetry Commission equivalent to the Boxing Commission, honey, they’d shut our game down.

 

Now I’ve witnessed a few wrong-way fight decisions; the De la Hoya/Trinidad verdict didn’t quite go by the book, though a case could be made for it. And the decision that gave the second De la Hoya/Mosley fight to Mosley—that seemed off the mark. But after that, Felix Sturm took the majority of rounds from De la Hoya in the warm up fight for the lucrative De la Hoya/Hopkins match; but the judges—totally different judges of course—gave that one to De la Hoya. Because they felt bad about De la Hoya not getting the decision in the Moseley fight when he maybe should’ve. And because all the people involved with Las Vegas tourism, Pay-per-View TV and the boxing industry would lose money and slip down, down, and bottom-out among the poor and needy if the De la Hoya/Hopkins match didn’t go forward.

 

But…

 

Compared to the career-making and -breaking decisions handed down in the professional poetry monde, boxing’s as pure as that first sheet of snow, first day of winter.

 

I don’t have time to list all the repellent examples—it’s late. It’s a quarter past midnight. I’ll just mention one recently discovered example, which I can place on the stack with my others. Before B. H. (Pete) Fairchild’s well known, much beloved The Art of the Lathe finally won a manuscript contest he shelled out a great many ten-, twelve-, fifteen-dollar readers' fees.  And twenty-dollar readers' fees. The manuscript was rejected so many times that Fairchild, then in his 50s, finally felt himself pressed to give up poetry, his life-long occupation, and any further attempts to publish this book. Right about the time things’d come to that, though, he finally won a publication award. Recently he discovered that one of the preliminary judges for one of those contests he’d entered  years earlier had beseeched the final judge to select Fairchild's manuscript, the clear standout among those submitted. However, the final judge had another recipient in mind. He awarded the prize to one of his students.

 

Like I said, this is just one example. Multiply this one many times over, in many variations, for a fair assessment of the predicament here—in Poetry Land. A lot of terrific manuscripts never make it to viable publishers. As unlucky as Pete was, for a long stretch, he had one moment of luck, a break-out moment. Some out there never will.

 

Sure, boxing involves behind-the-scenes machinations and manipulations, especially in the way managers use weaker opponents to build up the record of a promising prospect. When the main event comes around, though, it’s all out in the open, for everyone to see. And if the match goes all twelve, and winds up with the three judges, at least we saw and experienced the same fight they did—give or take a vantage point or two—and we can voice opinions on their decision. But while the judges’ scores, unanimous or split, might ignite discussions among fight fans for and against, it’s rare a decision departs so dramatically from sportswriters’ and audience's perceptions that sports history records that the loser got “robbed”.

 

Now, you want to go looking for experienced robbery victims? Mingle with poets. Many seasoned boxers, while they’re not pleased with every decision, do not feel they’ve been out-and-out robbed. On the other hand, nearly all of those among the most distinctive, movingly, strangely gifted poets I know feel they’ve been robbed.

 

They don’t talk about it much. They’d rather not. Me, I’ve been mugged on the street a couple times and I don’t talk about that either.

 

When people ask how could I possibly be interested in (yuck!) boxing, I tell them now and then I need a little out-front truth, like, you know, coming up for air. And until the day rolls around when boxers must fight behind closed doors while the audience sits outside waiting for the judges to come out and tell them which man did the best, the boxing ring’s got a little something over the poetry arena.

 

Meanwhile, what’s happened lately to our “Poetry Goes to the Fights” champs? Oscar De la Hoya, stung by the judges’—and many boxing fans’—disapproval of his non-confrontational style in the late rounds, has always since met his opponents head-on and forthright. He’s sustained four losses in his career, including the one to Trinidad, but has won world titles in an astonishing six weight divisions. In May of this year he KO’d the fierce Salvadorian fighter, Ricardo “El Matador” Mayorga, dropping him in the six round.

 

Felix Trinidad retired a while back after being outpointed by dazzling Winky Wright in a 154 pound match—just his second loss in a stellar career but a loss so decisive even his fans couldn’t contest it.

 

De la Hoya’s looking for one more big match before he retires, and he’s thinking maybe he wants Trinidad. Maybe he wants to draw Trinidad out of retirement—one last go-round, a rematch, De la Hoya v. Trinidad II, to settle the argument once and for all. After that, De la Hoya can retire and Trinidad can re-retire (actually re-re-retire, because his recent retirement was his second.)

 

I hear Felix Trinidad’s boxing the idea around in head, weighing the possibilities, musing.

 

And Pete Fairchild's book, The Art of the Lathe, once the object of serial rejections? In 1999 it won the Kingsley Tufts Award, the wealthiest and most prestigious literary award for poetry in the Western states. He had no trouble publishing his next manuscript, Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest (W. W. Norton), and that book went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry.

 

I hear Pete's musing also—maybe something along the lines of "funny how things turn out in the end." And I hear he's writing more poems.

Ed.


David Lehman
SEPTEMBER 18

 

Everything means something
as the “countdown to the unknown”
(Alan Greenspan's phrase) continues
for example tonight’s the fight
between Felix Trinidad and Oscar De la Hoya
and we’re driving to the republic of Flushing
with Stacey up front and a black star in the back seat
to watch it with our host the poet Frank Lima
who was an assistant chef at the Kennedy White House
and will serve longevity noodles on paper plates
you make a left at Dunkin’ Donuts on 137th Street
then a right on 35 Avenue and you’re there
I hear Bob Holman is coming will he bring Elizabeth Murray
I wonder so why don’t I phone him and find out
it’s ringing he answers “poetry” I say “this is prose”
and we resolve to duke it out on pay-per-view tonight
yes she is coming I just saw her cover for a book of poems
by Lee Ann Brown called Polyverse and want to see more
and I will bring this poem and ask everyone if it’s true

 


About the Poem

David Lehman’s books The Evening Sun and The Daily Mirror: A Journal in Poetry (both from Scribner) are composed of snappy, often playful, journal-like entries that reflect upon or summarize the day’s events.  Each brief piece draws together a mix of elements—just like a real day, just like a real poem.  Though we’ve isolated one here—the one that suits “Poetry Goes to the Fights,”—they’re best read as a series, because their effect is accumulative. 


David Lehman is poetry coordinator of the New School MFA program, and teaches a course on "Great Poems" each fall for honors undergraduates at NYU. He is the editor of The Best American Poetry series and author of The Last Avant-Garde, which traces the rise of the New York School poets. Scribner published his most recent poetry collection, When  A Woman Loves A Man.

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Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach