Guest Post, Jess Williard: On Boxing

“To look into my heart is to look into a muscle. To really look inquiringly inward as Sidney advises or as the most well-intentioned guru advises is to encounter, at least on some very honest days, my own space; it is to discover how empty I am, how much an onlooker and a gazer I have to be in order to write poems. And, if I am lucky, it is to find out how I can be filled enough by what is not me to use it, to have a subject, and, consequently, to find myself as a poet.” -Larry Levis

It would be too easy to say that I began writing and boxing at the same time. As compelled as I am to make that correlation it would, in fact, be a lie; I didn’t actually begin writing until I entered high school, several years after I took up the sport in a serious way. My start with boxing, however, was concurrent with, and, as I now understand, instigated by my desire to write, my thinking as a writer. My gazing. Or at least the recognition of the gaze, putting a name to a quality I’d always thought separated me from the world in many ways. I’d wanted to write for no other reason than the idea contained a palpable kind of energy, much the same way a fight (or the context of a fight, the preparation for it) contained energy.

I am not a violent person. I am, though, completely wound in what Joyce Carol Oates describes in her book On Boxing as the sport’s “systematic cultivation of pain in the interests of a project, a life-goal: the willed transposing of the sensation we know as pain (physical, psychological, emotional) into its polar opposite.” And while I’m hesitant to utilize boxing as a direct metaphor for writing (largely because I disagree with any necessitation of “pain” in writing or the writer’s life, at least an understanding of the writer that privileges some kind of transcendent suffering), it’s too close, particularly in my experience, not to. The thing is: I hate competition. I’m not at all interested in it. It makes me sick. It is the context of legitimate competition, however, that makes preparation as important as it is. I’m drawn here to Ezra Pound’s Canto 74:

I don’t know how humanity stands it

with a painted paradise at the end of it

without a painted paradise at the end of it

Competition is no paradise, but it’s the prospect of that “purpose” (the metaphor now extends far beyond either boxing or writing) that enables “standing it.” That spot on the horizon is, as Pound (and I think, I) understand, is manufactured. It can be there or not, and has all the power you wish to give it. “One might compare the time-bound public spectacle of the boxing match,” says Oates, “with the publication of a writer’s book. That which is ‘public’ is but the final stage in a protracted, arduous, grueling, and frequently despairing period of preparation.” And while I don’t disagree, it’s impossible for me not to acknowledge that in this and all other arenas, I believe preparation in itself is an end. Perhaps the only end. My interest in boxing spawned as an interest in the craft, one cultivated towards the very particular goal of fighting another human being, and persisted only as an interest in the craft. Oates describes the boxer’s training as the “fantastic subordination of the self in terms of a wished-for destiny,” and I’d like to take it further by defining it as the necessary subordination of the self in terms of an omnipresent and impossible destiny. Pound’s painted paradise. Oates continues that “to not only accept but to actively invite what most sane creatures avoid—pain, humiliation, loss, chaos—is to experience the present moment as already, in a sense, past.” Or, “It is to ease out of sanity’s consciousness and into another, difficult to name.” It’s a continuum I can’t even begin to understand, but one I’m constantly making myself a part of. I’d never suppose myself to be good at boxing—at really any athletic endeavor, for that matter—and the handful of matches I’ve had speak to this. I do know, though, that I can prepare like a professional, and this is what I find meaningful. I’m again explained to myself by Oates in her assertion that “if this is masochism—and I doubt that it is, or that it is simply—it is also intelligence, cunning, strategy. It is an act of consummate self-determination—the constant reestablishment of the parameters of one’s being.” Being, here, indicates both more and less than philosophical or spiritual contention. It’s literal. It’s your body.

I don’t box anymore. I still practice boxing, when I have the space and appropriate equipment, but distanced myself from the discipline of that particular craft quite some time ago. Discipline of craft, though, has remained, perhaps strengthened, and has manifested in other physical pursuits, namely weightlifting. While that’s an equally rich arena to consider, I’ll offer only this illustration as the way I think disciplined resistance training and poetry cooperate: strength is only secondary in Olympic weightlifting. It’s about technique more than anything else. The capability is in getting the heavy thing to move, and then using that kinetic energy to propel the weight and, ultimately, fall under it. It is using the dormant jewels of an object against itself, and then getting out of the way, positioning yourself to receive that energy safely. Think about words: all that latent energy, the inertia things can take on if we aggravate them in the right kind of way. And finally, just moving period is crucial. Perhaps Mark Strand said it best:

We all have reasons

for moving.

I move

to keep things whole.

I’d like to invoke a final parallel between boxing and poetry, as articulated, again, by Joyce Carol Oates: “So much happens and with such heart-stopping subtly you cannot absorb it except to know that something profound is happening and it is happening in a place beyond words.’ This subtly is the devastating force. The devastating force. Thank god there are no words for it. Otherwise there’d be no poems.

Jess Williard
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2 thoughts on “Guest Post, Jess Williard: On Boxing

  • October 14, 2019 at 4:19 pm

    I love Joyce Carol Oates…she’s a genius. This was a really great post. I especially love the end! Yes, thank God there are no words for it.

  • October 15, 2019 at 10:13 pm

    There are several moments in this post that hit hard, but none, I think, harder than that last bit: “Thank god there are no words for it. Otherwise there’d be no poems.” And that really is what we’re doing, trying to capture the uncapturable and convey it to others in a way that they recognize it. I found the correlation between boxing and poetry quite unique (I’ve never seen that one before), but the more I think it through, the more sense it makes.

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