May 13, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

Baseball Poetics

There comes a time when a writer has to take his or her distractions seriously. Whatever you turn your attention towards to take your mind off of your writing must be invited into your writing at some point, as a way of saying thanks. Like many writers, my distraction is baseball.

The connection between baseball and poetry has been written about by others more capable than myself so I’m going to be sourcing lots of stuff for this post. First off, here is one of my favorite statements about baseball that points out the shared emotional space between poetry and baseball:

“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.”–A. Bartlett Giamatti

Then there’s this quote from Robert Frost:

“Poets are like baseball pitchers. Both have their moments. The intervals are the tough things.”

And this from Levi Stahl, who has a terrific essay up at the Poetry Foundation’s site about poetry and baseball:

“Baseball’s very rhythms are those of poetry, acknowledging that if everything can change in a moment, then attention to those moments is an essential duty.”

One of the poets most famously obsessed with baseball was Jack Spicer, who I have written about before. Here is what poet Peter Gizzi says about how baseball helped formulate Spicer’s poetics, followed by two sections from Spicers “Poems for the Sporting News”:

For Spicer, baseball offers an ideal correlative to poetic composition with its model of mutuality, reciprocity, fraternal competition, gaming, and even “stealing” for the greater good. Neither player nor poet can exist alone. Both are absolutely dependent on the rules of their trade, their ability to cheat, the existence of tradition, and the regionalist team spirit of their peers. In addition to undermining the militaristic seriousness of the avant-garde, Spicer’s baseball vocabulary offers a joust at Olson’s theory of composition by field, especially considering it as the very heart or projective center of the ideal city, Olson’s “polis.” (from Jacket #7)

3

Pitchers are obviously not human. They have the ghosts of dead people in them. You wait there while they glower, put their hands to their mouths, fidget like puppets, while you’re waiting to catch the ball.
You give them signs. They usually ignore them. A fast outside curve. High, naturally. And scientifically impossible. Where the batter either strikes out or he doesn’t. You either catch it or you don’t. You had called for an inside fast ball.

The runners on base either advance or they don’t

In any case

The ghosts of the dead people find it mightily amusing. The pitcher, in his sudden humaness looks toward the dugout in either agony or triumph. You, in either case, have a pair of hot hands.

Emotion

Being communicated

Stops

Even when the game isn’t over.

4

God is a big white baseball that has nothing to do but go in a curve or a straight line. I studied geometry in highschool and know that this is true.

Given these facts the pitcher, the batter and the catcher all look pretty silly. No Hail Marys

Are going to get you out of a position with the bases loaded and no outs, or when you’re 0 and 2, or when the ball bounces out to the screen wildly. Off seasons

I often thought of praying to him but could not stand the thought of that big, white, round, omnipotent bastard.

Yet he’s there. As the game follows rules he makes them.

I know

I was not the only one who felt these things.

There are many poems about baseball, but most of them are so heavily nostalgic or silly that as a genre, I have to say that the baseball poem is pretty dreadful. The most successful examples seem to be when, like Spicer, the poet uses the game of baseball as a vehicle for telling us something about life or art itself. The following two poems are, I think, good examples of this, first in the Williams Carlos Williams poem in which he explores the menace inherent in the nature of crowds, and next in the Marianne Moore poem that draws the parallels between baseball and writing.

William Carlos Williams

“The Crowd at the Ball Game”

The crowd at the ball game
is moved uniformly

by a spirit of uselessness
which delights them –

all the exciting detail
of the chase

and the escape, the error
the flash of genius –

all to no end save beauty
the eternal –

So in detail they, the crowd,
are beautiful

for this
to be warned against

saluted and defied –
It is alive, venomous

it smiles grimly
its words cut –

The flashy female with her
mother, gets it –

The Jew gets it straight – it
is deadly, terrifying –

It is the Inquisition, the
Revolution

It is beauty itself
that lives

day by day in them
idly –

This is
the power of their faces

It is summer, it is the solstice
the crowd is

cheering, the crowd is laughing
in detail

permanently, seriously
without thought

Marianne Moore

“Baseball & Writing”

Fanaticism? No. Writing is exciting
and baseball is like writing.
You can never tell with either
how it will go
or what you will do;
generating excitement –
a fever in the victim –
pitcher, catcher, fielder, batter.
Victim in what category?
Owlman watching from the press box?
To whom does it apply?
Who is excited? Might it be I?

It’s a pitcher’s battle all the way – a duel –
a catcher’s, as, with cruel
puma paw, Elston Howard lumbers lightly
back to plate. (His spring
de-winged a bat swing.)
They have that killer instinct;
yet Elston – whose catching
arm has hurt them all with the bat –
when questioned, says, unenviously,
“I’m very satisfied. We won.”
Shorn of the batting crown, says, “We”;
robbed by a technicality.

When three players on a side play three positions
and modify conditions,
the massive run need not be everything.
“Going, going . . . ” Is
it? Roger Maris
has it, running fast. You will
never see a finer catch. Well . . .
“Mickey, leaping like the devil” – why
gild it, although deer sounds better –
snares what was speeding towards its treetop nest,
one-handing the souvenir-to-be
meant to be caught by you or me.

Assign Yogi Berra to Cape Canaveral;
he could handle any missile.
He is no feather. “Strike! . . . Strike two!”
Fouled back. A blur.
It’s gone. You would infer
that the bat had eyes.
He put the wood to that one.
Praised, Skowron says, “Thanks, Mel.
I think I helped a little bit.”
All business, each, and modesty.
Blanchard, Richardson, Kubek, Boyer.
In that galaxy of nine, say which
won the pennant? Each. It was he.

Those two magnificent saves from the knee-throws
by Boyer, finesses in twos –
like Whitey’s three kinds of pitch and pre-
diagnosis
with pick-off psychosis.
Pitching is a large subject.
Your arm, too true at first, can learn to
catch your corners – even trouble
Mickey Mantle. (“Grazed a Yankee!
My baby pitcher, Montejo!”
With some pedagogy,
you’ll be tough, premature prodigy.)

They crowd him and curve him and aim for the knees. Trying
indeed! The secret implying:
“I can stand here, bat held steady.”
One may suit him;
none has hit him.
Imponderables smite him.
Muscle kinks, infections, spike wounds
require food, rest, respite from ruffians. (Drat it!
Celebrity costs privacy!)
Cow’s milk, “tiger’s milk,” soy milk, carrot juice,
brewer’s yeast (high-potency –
concentrates presage victory

sped by Luis Arroyo, Hector Lopez –
deadly in a pinch. And “Yes,
it’s work; I want you to bear down,
but enjoy it
while you’re doing it.”
Mr. Houk and Mr. Sain,
if you have a rummage sale,
don’t sell Roland Sheldon or Tom Tresh.
Studded with stars in belt and crown,
the Stadium is an adastrium.
O flashing Orion,
your stars are muscled like the lion.