Why poets and writers should tune in more often.
To quote a good friend, Anthony Moll, author of Out of Step, “WWE is like the Shakespearean Theater of our time.” Here’s why:
1. It has broad spectacle for the masses.
There are stock characters and archetypal characters (the heel, the face) played by athlete-actors. It blends elements of both high and low culture. And it assumes and incorporates the presence of a living audience into its art-making, which is certainly a valuable skill for any writer to consider.
2. There are rules, but those rules are shaggy.
Every audience member understands that what they see in the wrestling ring is scripted, but they also know that the script must follow certain conventions, albeit loosely. For example, there are various ways a wrestler can win a match: a three-count mat-slap by the referee; a tapping-out forfeit by an opponent; a 10-count disqualification for being outside the ring, etc. But all of these are somewhat flexible since the referee is also an athlete-actor participating in the performance. So, cheating is also a part of the proceedings. Grab a chair and smash it. An outside person can enter the ring. The referee can be knocked out. The most important thing: Don’t be boring. Is it so different than the rules for, and shaping of, a sonnet? Both have a sort of square-ring quality.
3. It features a cornucopia of personas.
Pro wrestling is a great place to watch people try out and evolve various personas and characters. Wrestling makes use of both the figurative and literal mask that a voice and body can inhabit. And think about some of the greatest pro wrestlers of all time. Many share a similar charming ease when speaking into the mic. They know how to “authenticate” through the masks of their characters. See Ric Flair’s “WOOOOOOO,” or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s “Can you Smeeeeelllll?” Or even the exuberant positivity of Big E from the New Day. And while these are certainly performances that feel akin to stage acting, they occupy a space closer to persona poems. The wrestlers aren’t fully crossing the threshold into theater, namely because they aren’t attempting to hide the fact that it’s all scripted. Instead, they play a version of themselves that’s amplified or muted, which also is a way to think about poems written in persona.
4. It involves body language and figurative language.
Listen to the announcers, particularly folks like the late Mean Gene Simmons, describe the movements of the wrestlers in action. It will feel like hearing a proto-poem or an early draft. Visually, the audience is brought to a place of genuine awe watching top-rope dives, headlocks, figure-four leg locks, clotheslines, and other feats of pure athleticism. And while different than encounters with forms of art, the language we use to express that sense of awe often takes on a kind of poetics. We grasp for language to encapsulate the moment. We seek a vehicle to transfer a small portion of that feeling to another person. Writers and poets then seek to make that vehicle as beautiful as possible. Therefore, the blank page becomes our own little wrestling ring, where language is diving from the top rope and tagging in another partner.