Sunday, October 31, 2010

Baseball Poems (Batter Up!)

Extra-Special “This Could Be The Season” World Series Post!

“Casey at the Bat” (1888)
Ernest C. “Big Dog” Thayer
“The crowd at the ball game” (1923)
William Carlos “Doc” Williams
“Baseball & Writing” (1961)
Marianne “Smoothie” Moore
“Great Catch” (1974)
Thomas “TC” Clark
“As the pop foul descends . . .” (1995)
Ron “LongPoem” Silliman

Baseball and me have always been close. This season – here in my hometown, the place I was born, the city with which I share initials (“SF” natch!) – has been a special thrill. This particular Giant’s team – “castoffs and misfits” – has repeatedly left me heart-attacked and joy-teared. I love it, and while the World Series continues (San Francisco is up 3 games to 1 as I post this) I will always cherish this one, no matter how it turns out.

To celebrate this season I write today about baseball poems. I do so also to make-up in some small way to the gods of poetry, given that in recent weeks I’ve spent a lot of time watching and thinking about the Giants, instead of reading poems. However, I must insist that I’ve always loved baseball poems. In fact, my very first (!) post here in the glade concerned two of them: Kenneth Goldsmith’s appropriated transcript of the longest (time-wise) nine inning major league game ever, and Yo-Yo’s With Money, the transcribed you-are-there (at Yankee Stadium) wild dialogue of Ted Berrigan and Harris Schiff (click here to see, if you please).

Among the many other baseball poems out there (click here for a web page that lists a few dozen), I spotlight today four that are to me perennial pennant winners. The first might be a cliche, but I insist a classic still: Ernest Thayer’s 1888 “Casey at the Bat.” Wikipedia claims the poem has had “a profound effect on American popular culture,” and I say, I think that’s right. When the U.S. post office in 1996 issued a set of folk hero stamps, Mighty Casey was enshrined with Paul Bunyan, John Henry, and Pecos Bill.

“Casey at the Bat,” I do believe, was the first time I was really swept away by, totally caught up in, a poem. Yes, these days I flip for the surrealist verse of Lamantia, and – to give but another example here – swoon for the beautiful mysteries and questions of Armantrout – but to this day I still cheer for Thayer. True, its rhyming couplets – arranged in thirteen quatrains – can get stilted, and maybe the whole thing ain’t nothin’ but humorous doggerel. But the narrative momentum is undeniable, and the way names of players are used throughout is genre-defining.

Also genre-defining in “Casey” – and more than that too – is the way the poem focuses on a series of moments, each individual pitch in the apocryphal at-bat gets its due, and indeed at points individual moments within and between each pitch are spotlighted. It’s a classic of intensification-of-a-moment-by-words, a key element of much great poetry. And maybe that’s a tie between the game and words/poems, in that intensified moments in or of time are also what baseball, abstracted out, brings to those who watch and dig the game.

Of course, the greatest great thing in Thayer’s poem is the ending, in which contrary to one’s expectations and hopes, failure reigns. The twist is a “surprise” the first time it’s heard – do you remember when that was, for you?! – and is a perfectly correct way to end the quintessential baseball poem, given that the sport considers a great player to be one who gets a hit three out of every ten times at bat; in other words, who strikes or otherwise makes an out, a la mighty Casey, the vast majority of the time.

Thayer’s final quatrain holds its conclusion to the final line, indeed, its final clause, and the brilliance and impact of that moment of failure is heightened by the lines that precede it, which anaphorically (with “somewhere” being the key repeated word) and unforgettably establish scenes of delight and fun that contrast with, and set up, the disappoint to come:
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville - mighty Casey has struck out.
I gotta believe that “Casey at the Bat” remains a gateway poem, at least for young boys, opening minds to what words can do when carefully chosen and arranged. Thayer’s work, I think, permits those who hear and read it to (er, um) strike out from their imagination into the great field of poetic language.


Next up is “The crowd at the ball game” by William Carlos Williams. It’s poem XXVI in Spring and All (1923) and before going any further, how great is it that the work appears in that book, given the fresh start associations between the opening of the two respective seasons?

Spring and All
(Contact Editions, 1923)

Here’s how the poem begins:

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—
Doc Williams’ poem – it has eighteen additional couplets, and you can read it by clicking here – has generated much discussion, including in recent years. Some suggest it concerns the growing diversity of baseball fans, others find in it a criticism of the herd mentality of crowds, and still others interpret the work (and I think rightly) as ambiguous and not just about watching baseball. Professor Al Filreis’ two hundred words on the poem (click here) seems to most concisely catch all this, and more (click to go). Personally, I love the celebration, in the opening lines quoted above, of the precision of seeing, the equating of that with beauty. Doc’s diagnosis there is a home run.


Marianne Moore was supremely into baseball. In 1968, late in life, after having attended games for years, she tossed out the baseball to open the season at Yankee Stadium (see photo above). Moore also once said she’d have given much to have invented the intricate stitch pattern found on the baseball. Now that’s something only a poet could think, I do believe.

Moore’s “Baseball & Writing” (click here to read) is a well-recognized classic baseball poem, and one that has been much discussed (see in particular the 20 page analysis (pdf) linked-to here). The poem, in the words of Elaine Oswald and Robert L. Gale, “celebrat[es] her beloved Yankees but mainly compar[es] two painful arts.” It was first published in the New Yorker on December 6, 1961, and here’s the poem’s opening stanza:

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?
The mid-stanza “fever” here, via the grammar of Moore’s lines, and the rhetorical questions that end the stanza, seem to point to the players, and the poet as “the victim” who burns with fervor and intensity. But if the poet/spectator might indeed get or be excited, doesn’t that mean that the spectator of the poem, the reader, can too? I say yes indeed to that, and love that Moore tips her tricorn hat here to the ecstatic frenzy that can be brought on not only by playing in a ballgame, but by watching one and writing or reading a poem about one too!

After its opening stanza Moore’s poem, in a nimble, quick-shift mode, covers a lot of ground, incorporating the names of almost twenty individual Yankees from the early 1960s, including the well-known (Mickey Mantle), those perhaps known only to hardcore fans (for example, Tom Tresh, who she wisely suggests not be traded given that he won the top rookie award the year after she published the poem), and true obscuros (Rowland Sheldon, for example).

On my scorecard, Moore’s most marvelous set of lines are those at the start of the fourth of the poem’s seven stanzas. The lines begin with a fresh set of metaphors about a player nicknamed for the way he sometimes resembled a Hindu spiritualist, and then quickly shift to at-the-game action, including an out-of-here moment, then finish with a couple assessments by the poet:
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.
The agility of these lines, their surprise and the speed, is of the sort I enjoy immensely in Moore. She’s Jennie Finch quick, elegant and sure-handed as Omar Vizquel.


The next baseball poem in the line-up here today is “Great Catch” by Tom Clark. It’s included in his 1974 collection Blue (Black Sparrow Press, 1974). That book, while having only about ten poems (out of more than 60) about the sport, features a cover that has to be among the all-time tippy-top poetry-baseball images, the great (and at the time very young phenom) pitcher Vida Blue, striding right at you:

“Great Catch” concerns a particular pitch, fly ball, and catch at a particular major league game. From the players named and circumstances detailed in the poem, a little googling shows that the game that gave rise to Clark’s poem was played between the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics on July 16, 1973, at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, before a crowd of 43,571, of which Clark presumably was one. According to the box score, the Athletics lost the game 7-5, but the final score’s not at all germane to the poem, which focuses entirely and beautifully on a play made in the field by Joe Rudi, a great and under-rated player for the Athletics. Here’s Clark’s poem:
With one away
in the seventh
and Terry Crowley on base
Pina threw
a side arm curve
down and in
to Earl Williams
who golfed it
high ’n deep
to left

Joe Rudi
pedaled back
to the warning path
sidewise, watching
the towering drive
as it peaked
and began to fall

With hand propped
against the wall he
crouched, and leaped
and hung
in a bath of light
his glove
a foot above the top
              speared it!

—and he fell back down
into the sound
This poem has dang fine compression, yet lots of details and plenty of action. I count eleven verbs spread through the lines, and with each one – think intensification of the moments – serves to shift the focus of the action. It’s very cinematic, and the sparing use of the indents (just two lines) works nicely to emphasize the particular wonder of, the attention keyed by, the spectators (and thus by us readers) on the particularly superb athletic prowess of Rudi in in the outfield, at and above the wall. I also like the sensuousness of both “bath of light” (the outfield wall becomes a big tub) and especially the final couplet
—and he fell back down
into the sound
which marvelously conveys how the roar of the crowd – no doubt very loud with 43,000 plus in the house – surrounds the outfielder as he lands after his jumping catch. The near-rhyme of “down” and “sound” suggests the connection between Rudi and the fans that must have vibed through the stadium at that very moment. I give “TC” a standing O for this poem.

the illustration that accompanies “Great Catch” in Tom Clark’s Blue
“... hung / motionless [ . . . ] his glove / a foot above the top / speared it!”


Although great plays in the field happen often enough in major league games, a more common experience is something that involves those who watch in the stands: the foul ball. According to those who’ve counted, anywhere from twenty-eight to forty balls per game are fouled into the crowd. These out-of-play batted balls are sometimes scary (the screaming liner) but mostly entertaining as hell. Most who attend games enjoy the thought of possibly catching or snagging a foul as a souvenir.

The odds of getting a foul ball are slim, one in a thousand, typically, although it varies depending on where one sits. Getting one isn’t easy even when it seems to come right at you, and if the ball gets loose, watch out, it can be quite a scene.

How “quite a scene” can it be? Well, here’s the first paragraph of section XXXVII of Ron Silliman’s prose-poem You, which is a part of his longpoem The Alphabet. With regard to what can happen with a foul ball into the stands, it’ll give you a most excellent idea:

     As the pop foul descends from the heavens into the crowd, hands and gloves
     shoot skyward, bodies thrusting themselves up, straining, grasping, parody
     of a scene on Iwo Jima, while below others cringe & cower, popcorn, beers,
     sodas, spilling in all directions, the sculptural effect complete (at least half of
     the participants seem to have their eyes shut), a phenomenon that repeats in
     smaller and less hysterical numbers again and again as the loose ball bounces
     untouched from section to section until a boy with an oversized blue glove
     smothers it against his chest.

Now, neither the other six paragraphs of this section, nor anything else in the fifty plus page You, specifically concerns baseball. So I admit I’m stretching – like McCovey used to do at first, natch – to identify the excerpt above as a baseball poem, since it in fact is one part of one section of the poem, or something like that.

But say hey, this one deserves throwing out the rule book, and (er, um) singling it out as a poem. The (er, um again, but this is actually correct) single sentence – thirteen clauses, ninety-four words – slows down a classic in-the-stands action scene, breaking it into a series of richly observed and reported moments . This folks, is an instance of old-school new precisionism! The secret to it, I think, are its eleven verbs. They keep the action going, a word-rally that goes and goes. This is a most excellent prose-poem of the ol’ ballgame.

Speaking of poetry and baseball, Silliman about a month ago was featured on a Fact-Simile Poet-Card. These wondrously fun cards – so far this year nine different ones have been issued, click here to see – are modeled on the Topps and other baseball cards that surely are familiar to many. The Fact-Simile cards picture the poet on the front, while on the back is, of course, a poem (Silliman’s has a fourteen line excerpt, a kind of sonnet, from Revelator, a newer longpoem of his).

Silliman’s Fact-Simile card front is particularly sweet. It features both a larger color photo and an inset, circular black and white portrait. This happens to mimic almost exactly the look of the baseball cards issued in 1963 by Topps. It’s a classic design, because it sets up poetic echoes between the two photos. Check out the similar look of Ron “LongPoem” Silliman’s Fact-Simile card, and the 1963 Topps cards of two players who I hope in the name of the-myth-that-is-Abner-Doubleday you’ll recognize right away:


Tom King said...

Don't forget about Charles North's "Lineups."

Steven Fama said...

Thanks Tom King for stopping in and mentioning North's work. Great as those poems are, I don't know if they are exactly right for this post, which focused on poems more or less about the game, or watching it. North's poems use the baseball line-up as a form, but are "about" matters other than the game. As such, I'd consider North's poems as a kind of dardanic writing, of the kind that would fit in the blog post I did on such poems (click here).