Friday, July 18, 2014

Vélivre: Dancing on the Pedals

Phil Liggett. Poet?

He’s dancing on his pedals
              in a most

                --Phil Liggett`s description of Dag Otto Lauritzen climbing during the 1989 Tour de France

For me, and, I imagine, a lot of cycling fans, one of the pleasures of watching the Tour de France on tv is hanging out with Phil Liggett, the “Voice of Cycling,” and his sidekick, Paul Sherwen. Let’s face it—bike races can make for pretty boring tv—hour after hour of turning of pedals with occasional bursts of drama. But Phil and Paul have a way of making those hours delightful, entertaining, even funny (though not always intentionally).  A big part of their charm comes from Phil Liggett’s quirky, eccentric, insightful, sometimes-bizarre, sometimes-poetic play-by-play. (Just the other day, for instance, he referred to the attacking Thomas Voeckler as “an absolute imp.”)  So famous are Phil’s utterances during bike races that there are several websites devoted to collecting and relishing the best of them.
A few years ago, Doug Donaldson, sometimes-writer for Bicycling magazine, got the brilliant idea to not just gather some of these into a book but to treat these Phil-isms as a kind of found poetry. In his Dancing on the Pedals (2005), Donaldson assembled or curated these lines and presented them on the page as free verse poetry, divided into lines and stanzas. And sometimes the result is genius. Here’s an example:

Very light winds
                                                And very hot indeed
It will be an easy day
                                                To destroy yourself
                                                                Stage 17, 1996 [Tour de France]

As you can see, there is a natural cadence and parallel structure to a Phil-ism like this one which enables it to work perfectly as a poem. Donaldson’s line breakdown makes perfect sense. As does this one:

                            we go
                        off into
                   the rain again
                  and slip your
                    way down

Other pieces in the book capture Phil’s odd phrasing or occasionally misspoken lines which make his language just strange enough to be poetic:

Jean-Francois Bernard would face
his face
carrying the heaviest load of all
the thirst
of a nation longing for a hero.

Other times we get Phil’s unique stream of consciousness:

                it’s a narrow little village.
In fact, last night, Paul, I was so hungry
                At nearly eleven o’clock
driving it.
We were hoping we could find a restaurant open.

What a forlorn hope that was.

As we now see it in broad daylight,
It looks like a pleasant place

This too is lovely. The shifts in tone from the anecdote about searching for food, to the surprising if perhaps overly dramatic word “forlorn,” and then back to that  plain final statement—this is, indeed, the stuff of poetry.

Donaldson shows a good eye, at times, for organizing these “texts” into poetic shapes, playing off a relationship between form and content, like in this one, where the line-spacing reinforces the sense of a descent:

You can gain
or lose
         so much time
going down
       a steep hill.
        It takes a very
          special type of        
with no nerves.

Sometimes, though, the pieces don’t quite work for me—either the content is unremarkable or the “poetic” arrangements feel a bit precious. For instance:

we’re on the Swiss side now
and they love the Tour
de France

What’s striking here?  Sure, I can hear Phil saying it, but is it poetry? There are quite a few pieces in the book like this one, which strike me more as voice-texts than poems—that is, language set-pieces that are undoubtedly Phil but that`s all they are. There`s no magic, no odd turn of phrase to elevate the lines beyond the ordinary. 

Which makes me wonder, would any of these pieces work if the reader didn’t know Phil’s voice and hear that lilting British accent saying the words inside his or her head? That’s what I kept wondering as I read this book. Because cycling fans will, indeed, hear Phil’s voice as they read these pieces, and that’s one of the unique things about this project.

Liggett’s is one of those instantly recognizable and unforgettable sports voices, like Howard Cosell’s (boxing, football) or Phil Rizutto’s (baseball) or Danny Gallivan’s (hockey). (Incidentally, Hart Seely, one of the editors of a similar collection of Rizutto`s “poetry” has applied the same approach to the world of politics with his collection of the found poetry of Donald Rumsfeld.) For me, the implied voice of Liggett in the reader`s head is key to enjoying the book. I wonder if any of this would even work for a reader unfamiliar with Phil’s schtick—though I’m not sure why such a person would ever pick up this book.

There are gems here, but the book is too long, the good bits diluted by the mediocre. If the book were to be updated now, almost 10 years later, there might be enough Grade-A material to make the book a true champion.

I also found that a lot of the titles Donaldson assigned to the poems kind of irritated me (you’ll notice I omit the titles from the pieces I quote in this review; that’s no accident). Most of them don’t feel very Phil-like to me.

And I wonder what Liggett himself thinks about this book. There’s nary a word from Phil in the introduction, no indication that Liggett had any say in Donaldson’s selections—not that he necessarily should have. Phil’s talent is calling the race, and for that alone we cycling fans should be thankful.  

1 comment:

  1. Jasper, I am not familiar with Phil's voice, but I still love the selections you've chosen. I think they are poetry--even for those of us who are yet to discover Phil. Thanks so much for this lovely velivre!


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