Sunday, February 19, 2012


Last week Al Filreis posted a link to Jacket2 of Paul Blackburn reading one of his baseball poems, "7th Game: 1960 Series," and it reminded me of a post I made back in 2008 on poetry and baseball, which I'll repost below.

After that double play against the Nationals to clinch the National League East gonfalon (pennant), it's time to rewrite Franklin P. Adams's "Tinker to Evers to Chance" (spoken in the forlorn voice of a Mets fans):

These are the saddest of possible words:
"Rollins to Utley to Howard."
Trio of Phillies, and fleeter than birds,
"Rollins and Utley and Howard.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Met hit into a double--
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:
"Rollins to Utley to Howard."

One of the great things about the original poem is how the meter mimics the rhythm of a double play. "Howard" throws off the dactylic meter, but it still turns...two.
Why are there more poems written about baseball than, say, football, basketball, or soccer? There are several anthologies devoted to poetry and baseball, as well as journals such as Cosmic Baseball Association and Elysian Fields Quarterly. Jack Spicer loved baseball and wrote many fine poems based on the sport. William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore also come to mind as poets who loved the game and wrote fine baseball poems. There are also excellent baseball novels, including Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.

But what's the connection between baseball and poetry? Is baseball more "poetic" than, say, football? Is there a connection between American poets trying to locate a national identity in literature and the poem addressed to baseball, "America's sport"? And if the rumors are true about football replacing baseball as America's sport, will there suddenly be more football poems?
My own sense of the connection between baseball and poetry came into focus after overhearing a conversation at the Royal Tavern in Philadelphia, Game 3 of the Phillies-Brewers NLDS on the TV over the bar:
Guy 1: Baseball's a thinking-man's sport.
Guy 2: Yeah, you don't have to watch every play.
Guys 1 and 2 were trying to persuade Guy 3 of the intellectual virtues of baseball. I'm not sure how thinking and not paying attention go together, but there's something between these statements that has to do with the poetry of baseball as what happens not only during plays, but also between plays. Here, for example, is a favorite baseball poem, from Paul Blackburn's "17.IV.71," that gets at this sense of a "between-state" in baseball that may lend itself to poetry:

Top of the 8th, after
four fouled off Gentry, still
2 and 2, a plastic bag
blows over home plate, Dave
Cash of the Pirates steps
out of the box, steps
back in, after speeding the plastic
on its way
with his bat, fouls
two more off, then 3 & 2, then
infield bounce to the shortstop, out at first.

The poem reads like a play-by-play commentary on the radio, including all the jargon of pitch counts and so on, but the field of attention isn't simply on the "play," or putting the ball into play (the pitch, the swing, the fielding, and so on). Instead, there's a play of attention between official play ("four fouled off," "fouls/two more off," "bounce to the shortstop, out at first") and unofficial play of a plastic bag blowing "over home plate" and Cash speeding it "on its way/with his bat." Blackburn was a master of the music and rhythm of language. Here, his description of this unofficial play is paradoxically like someone not watching every play: attention in inattention, attention to the unintended and unscripted events that happen between plays. And maybe this is what's "poetic" about baseball--attention to all that happens between plays, like poetry attentive to all that happens between words.

A couple of other things to note: The structure of Blackburn's poem mimics the temporal cadence of Cash's at-bat. And note the linebreaks--that long last line, for example, where the ball's put "into play," and the indented lines that measure pauses in play (and "in play" in the poem), mimicking, for example, Cash stepping out of the batter's box, then back in.

Another favorite baseball poem--Robert Kelly's
"A Pastoral Dialogue on the Game of the Quadrature."
The symmetry of the field (quadrature) and the rules (trinity motif in first, second, third bases; three strikes; three outs; nine innings), on the one hand, and the asymmetry of play itself (endless adjustments, replacements, changes; the caprice of weather), on the other, create a tension not unlike the tension in poetry between structure and chance, and what happens between words.

*A final note on baseball and the imagination: According to the Baseball Almanac, Gary Gentry wasn't even pitching on that windy April day at Shea Stadium. The Mets lost 2-0. Steve Blass pitched a complete-game shutout for the Pirates, Dave Cash went 1 for 4, as did Roberto Clemente.

So much for poetry as factual document. Then again, there is no record in the Baseball Almanac of a plastic bag blowing across home plate.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.