Swimming in Literature: From Shallows to Depths
Splash! Great Writing About Swimming
The Ecco Press
254 pp., $26
'Swimming cultivates Imagination," wrote Annette Kellerman in "How to Swim," published in 1918. The celebrated swimmer and movie mermaid made a valid point, judging from "Splash!" a new anthology of writing about swimming.
Laurel Blossom, a lifelong swimmer and a poet, has gathered essays, short stories, excerpts from novels, and poetry all dealing with swimming, from sport to metaphor.
"The literature of swimming is rich and varied, and like all good literature it does not confine itself to its primary subject, but delves deep into human experience," Blossom writes in the introduction. She quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald, who describes "all good writing" as "swimming underwater and holding your breath" (from "The Crack Up").
Many of the writers are well-known: Ray Bradbury, Mary Oliver, Jack London, Anne Sexton, James Dickey, Calvin Trillin, Laurie Colwin, and more. The fare ranges from John Updike's "Lifeguard" and John Cheever's "The Swimmer" to A.M. Klein's "Lone Bather" and Colleen J. McElroy's "Learning to Swim at Forty Five." As editor, Blossom has chosen her personal favorites, and because of a lack of space has left out some fine writing about swimming.
Several accomplished competitive swimmers shed light on swimming as sport, such as Dawn Fraser (with Harry Gordon) whose account of winning the gold medal - and setting a world record - in the 100-meter freestyle at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne is riveting. Then there are others who take their pen for a creative dip, and allow their musings to ride the waves or be fueled by flutter kick - from a child's underwater adventure to strange encounters at the local pool.
Lest you think this is all just a dip at the shallow end of the pool or a way to get that jacuzzi feeling inside; some of the material brings to the surface the darker, more negative aspects associated with swimming, such as fear and drowning, and the grueling work that comes with rigorous training and long-distance swimming.
One lasting voice is that of poet Philip Booth as a father instructing his daughter: "... As you float now, where I held you/ and let go, remember when fear/ cramps your heart what I told you:/ lie gently and wide to the light-year/ stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you."
*Kirsten Conover is on the Monitor staff. She was a competitive diver in college.