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Colleen Glenney Boggs Headshot

Quoth the Raven, 'Hut-hut'

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The 49ers are heavily favored to win the Super Bowl on February 3, but I'll be rooting for the Ravens. My loyalties have nothing to do with football, nor Baltimore. I'll be cheering for the only team in the NFL named for a poem.

Sure, there are plenty of animal mascots in sports. My college mascot was a bulldog, and in the larger arena of sports, there's a menagerie of lions, tigers, and bears, not to mention eagles and geoducks (thank you, Evergreen State). These mascots spring from the ancient traditions of heraldry. The Ravens stand out for their association with a specific poem by Edgar Allan Poe, who is buried in Baltimore.

Published in 1845, the poem captured Poe's favorite theme: in his essay "The Philosophy of Composition," he argued that "the death ... of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world -- and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover."

One can only wonder if Poe would have thought that Manti Te'o's recent media exposure confirmed this claim. The poet might at least have found himself intrigued by the case's elaborate deceptions, since he himself is generally credited with having invented the literary hoax.

Readers did not always take "The Raven" seriously, and it was quickly and widely parodied. But like the Manti Te'o story, it speaks to the larger truth that women to this day play a minor role in mainstream sporting culture. Title IX did not generate a women's football league, and even in an age where combat restrictions on women are being lifted, it remains hard to imagine that they will join the ranks of the NFL. They can be on the sidelines as cheerleaders, on the bleachers as fans, or on the television as advertisers, but they can't be on the benches -- let alone the field.

If there's one thing the 49ers and the Ravens will not be fighting over on Sunday, it is the exclusion of women from their ranks. Both team's names remind us that women are absent from American football. The 49ers' name invokes the lyrics from "My Darling Clementine," which tell us of a miner in the Gold Rush of 1849, whose sweetheart has died.

Football is the last bastion of nineteenth-century American masculinity. And although football hadn't been invented yet, the notion of masculinity it embodies was already being debated in the 1840s -- the era from which both Super Bowl teams get their names. President Obama referenced Seneca Falls in his Inaugural Address, and that 1848 convening by Elizabeth Cady Stanton is generally recognized today as one of the key moments in American women's history. The President's confidence that Americans have come a long way since Seneca Falls might be premature. But strangely enough, watching football might be one way to prove him right.

Millions of American women will enjoy watching the Super Bowl -- and women were among Poe's most enthusiastic readers. Poe's poem suggests both the possibilities and the pitfalls of these pleasures: like the Raven, we can keep repeating the same refrain, and "nevermore" see gender relations change in America. But one of the great things about "The Raven" is that it creates an image and a story that is open to interpretation. The poem is not merely repeating nineteenth century attitudes towards women; it is showing us what those attitudes are, and giving us the tools to analyze them -- and from there, perhaps, to change them.

It will be a long time before we have a team called the "Emily Dickinsons" let alone the "Adrienne Richs." I would love to see the "Aurora Leighs" battling it out with the "Annabel Lees." But for now, I will settle for rooting for the Ravens, because I enjoy the awareness of our cultural past and our future possibilities that poetry can bring onto the football field.

Colleen Glenney Boggs is Associate Professor of English and Women's and Gender Studies at Dartmouth College and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. Her book, Animalia Americana, was published by Columbia University Press in January.