The following essay by Sydney Lea is excerpted from the book GROWING OLD IN POETRY: TWO POETS, TWO LIVES, which is a reflection by two 70-year-old poets laureate on how they came to the art they practice. In April 2013, Autumn House Press will issue the collection in e-book format.

No matter the self-contempt such a feeling engenders, my love of sports abides– if love is the accurate word– though at 70, in most cases I am perforce a spectator, one soul among the millions of other fans out there. Still, to witness or even to think of athletic competition means for me the electrification of some deep and inscrutable nerve. One cause of this enduring spark must surely be a certain now-ancient headline. I’ll never forget it:

Lea and Harmar Star In Upset of Hotchkiss.

The banner ran in the local newspaper after our ragtag club team beat the prep school with the longstanding hockey tradition. None of us had expected other than a humbling defeat. If I had to count up ten “peak” experiences in my life, at least my younger life, that game, and the way I played it, would make the list, whatever such a fact may imply about my character.

Over the years, to repeat an abiding motif, I have perhaps too often inclined to see myself as a merely okay sort of person, not just as athlete but also as scholar, father, husband, poet, what have you? In my school days, I was proficient with languages and with words in general; indeed, I was a high-end student in all the humanities; but as soon as someone introduced abstract scientific concepts or even plain numbers into the conversation, my game was over. Thus, while I always made my school’s honor roll, I never quite reached high honors.

Now I am poet laureate of Vermont, which has been a great treat: I’ve roamed my little state, library to library, reading and discoursing, and inevitably met up with intriguing people.

A few months back, for instance, in a postage stamp town, a farmer walked over after my presentation and showed me a book: Mountain Interval, by Robert Frost. He asked if I knew it, and I truthfully said indeed I knew its poems well.

“How many of them can you say?” he asked.

I told him I could probably do two or three entire.

“I can do ‘em all,” he answered.

I quizzed him, not asking for recitations of famous entries like “The Road Not Taken” but ones like “Pea Brush” or “An Encounter.”

He obviously had the entire volume by heart.

That sort of experience has made my honorific position a joy. And yet sometimes at night I hear a voice (is it my mother’s or my own, or are those one and the same?): “Poet Laureate of Vermont? What about the U.S.?”

Meandering seems almost a hobby, and I have wandered from that hockey game, in which I played right defense, Billy Harmar left. I was a good player, maybe more than merely good; Billy, on the other hand, a genuine star, would go on to play professionally in the Eastern Hockey League before deciding to take his life in other directions.  Who knows how far up he might have gone from there if he’d chosen? He was brilliant.

For that one night, however, I was brilliant too, and I felt it. I will always have that game to refer to, even if I’ve likely never again felt the rush of fulfillment to quite the same degree, at least certainly not on an athletic stage.

To be sure, I’ve known periods of writing that, whatever others may think about the results, have felt somewhat akin. In those spans, I have come as close to believing in inspiration as I ever will: my fingers move on the keyboard as though they were being guided by something outside myself; my “moves,” to revert to sporting terms, appear to be given to me.

On the evening when Billy and I starred against that daunting team of visitors, everything I did also seemed determined by a power beyond me, and every move went right. I recall, for example, making a rush on goal from the blue line, then sweeping the puck behind me to Billy, who slapped a hard shot at the cage. In the same instant, I saw the Hotchkiss goalie in position to catch the puck, so I held my stick in its path and ticked it just enough to send it over his glove hand.

Billy had a stunningly fast shot. I’m persuaded I couldn’t have replicated that deflection once in ten further tries.

But what I remember most is a certain face-off. I simply knew that the puck, exactly at the moment the ref dropped it, would fly my way belt-high. I held my gauntleted right hand, which I’d normally have kept on the stick, right at the proper level to snare that puck and in the same second drop it and pass it cross-ice to a teammate, who led a scoring charge up to the other goal.

Between periods, our own first-rate goalie, Tom Lewis –now an eminent scholar and my dear friend of more than sixty years, the two of us having gone to nursery school together– said, “It must have been premonition, the way you reached for that puck.”

It was just that, but where the foreknowledge came from will forever be a mystery.

The next year I got admitted to Yale, where, I was assured, all the students would be geniuses, to which I can tersely respond by mentioning a name: George W. Bush. Be that as it may, there were some very bright young men on the New Haven campus. There were also some exceptionally good hockey players.

I knew I’d never be the best student in my class, any more than I’d be the best player on the hockey team. And so, utterly uncertain as to who the hell the real Lea was, I must have concluded that I’d be the best hard-drinking, partying, outrageous good student and good hockey player anyone knew.

I didn’t know it at seventeen, but I was already on my way to a years-long, dazing battle with substance abuse, mostly alcohol. I saw no problem even when, in due course, the addictive demons taking over, my grades turned from highly respectable to B and lower. Eventually, it seems almost unnecessary to add, I quit the hockey squad.

I never, however, entirely quit my enthusiasm for sports. When I got to grad school, and soon enough started my college teaching career I turned myself into a fine handball player, though there remained people, like the greatly decent and greatly skilled Dartmouth intramural coach Will Volz, to whom I remained an agonizing touch inferior.

Nothing new about that. It was thus almost a relief when, in 1975, a torn meniscus –treatment for which was far dicier and debilitating than it is in our era of arthroscopic surgery– got in the way, and I had to quit that competition too.

From childhood, of course, I’d had other sporting instincts, ones of a different stripe. I loved to train and hunt behind bird dogs; I loved to fly fish; I loved hiking and canoeing. These have, in fact, remained lifelong passions, to which I have added kayaking, something, as I mentioned earlier, that I’ve occasionally practiced competitively in the last half decade. All these pursuits keep me in pretty fair shape, especially since I got into recovery from addiction some considerable time back. So far as team sports go, though, I am now not unlike many more sedentary friends: I don’t watch TV news, sitcoms, or anything else. But I do watch sports.

Perhaps oddly, I do not follow the favorite sport of my youth: this may simply be any old geezer’s rumination, but it doesn’t seem to me that the teamwork, especially the passing, is what it was in the era of Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau, Red Kelly and Doug Harvey. Modern players seem simply to dump the puck into the offensive zone and then go racing after it. And the glorification of fights –though I concede I had my share of them in my playing days– now strikes me as anything but glorious.

If I’m at home, however, rarely do I miss either a Celtics or Red Sox game, no matter I was anything but adept at either of those games. I spectate alone for the most part, and would be, in all candor, a tad embarrassed to have other grown men and women regard the passion of my rooting.

Yes, I am a gung-ho fan, even if I know how silly it is to heroize athletes of any stripe, let alone the pros, whose ranks include so many undesirables: narcissists at best, referring to themselves in the third person, others wife-beaters, felons, and cheats, imagining themselves immune from the societal and characterological strictures that the rest of us must accept. If there are heroic figures in sports –I think of Jackie Robinson, say, or Stan Musial or Bill Russell– I fear they are the exceptions.

Of course, it’s not merely the athletes who so often disgrace themselves.  As I write this, football’s New Orleans Saints are under scrutiny for something called Bountygate, their former defensive coach having offered pay to players who injured other teams’ stars. It revolts me to know that there are those who excuse this pig’s incentives, as if the potential ruin of an opponent’s career, or the permanent alteration of his health, were just –as they say– “a part of the game.”

Football, I admit, is my least favorite spectator of the major sports.  And my attitude toward most football coaches I have observed ranges from contempt to mere neutrality. To me it is telling that the NFL’s Super Bowl trophy is named for someone who famously claimed that “winning isn’t the most important thing; it’s the only thing.” To some, these are words of an inspiring figure; to me they are those of a moral idiot.  Wouldn’t the world be well served by abandoning such primitive counsel?

And yet.

And yet here is a challenging poem by James Wright called “Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio”:

      In the Shreve High football stadium,
      I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
      And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
      And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
      Dreaming of heroes.

      All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
      Their women cluck like starved pullets,
      Dying for love.

      Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
      At the beginning of October,
      And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.
A quick and careless reading of that poem would go something like this: the world of Martin’s Ferry is arid, oppressive, sexually deprived, and as a result –note that the word therefore is the only one with its own line– the community’s blighted adults make heroes of their athletic male children, who, we know, will succeed them in their own ruined domain.

But where is the speaker of this poem, the poet? The very first line puts him “In the Shreve High football stadium.” He is a participant! His poem knows there is something very wrong in what he beholds, and yet what he beholds must also captivate him to some degree. And notice that the spectacle he witnesses is not merely terrible and violent but is also “suicidally beautiful.” Those two words are the profound imaginative triumph of Wright’s work here. They show how, in lyric (as in life, or at least my own), disparate and even contradictory impulses can exist simultaneously.

Perhaps I am simply clutching at justification for my TV-watching habits, seeking comfort in Whitman’s famous “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” But I’m not large, and I know it. I suspect in plain truth that I willingly suspend my adult skepticism and even my ethical inquietude when I watch a great game of basketball or baseball that involves a Boston team. I see “my” players as heroes malgré moi. In fact I can even, if grudgingly, admire the prowess of players from opposing teams.

Even in my moment of hockey “greatness,’’ I understand, I could never have dreamed of doing the things that I see on the screen; but to observe these extraordinary feats of physical skill and intelligence is still to recall that ancient, overwhelming, lit-from-within enthusiasm of the Hotchkiss game, a feeling that remains a sort of iconic moment in my soul.

But I need to finish this now. My Celtics –with their heroic veteran corps of Jason Terry, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, along with the dazzling youngster Rajon Rondo– are taking on the dread Lakers in a matter of minutes.

Sydney Lea is poet laureate of Vermont. His eleventh collection, I WAS THINKING OF BEAUTY, is due in April. His third collection of personal essays, A NORTH COUNTRY LIFE: TALES OF WOODSMEN, WATERS, AND WILDLIFE will be published in January by Skyhorse Publishing in New York. A HUNDRED HIMALAYAS, selections from his literary essays over four decades, was recently issued by the University of Michigan Press.