The genuflection of the baseball poets

I love baseball.

I love poetry.

But I hate baseball poetry. Or, more precisely, I absolutely despise the pretentiousness of baseball poets, no time more than the present, with another season soon upon us and the exhortations of spring and splendor are being uttered.

There is nothing subtle about how I feel, and it hurts me to confess that my favorite poet and the forever bard of America, Walt Whitman, is to blame for all this.

The Poetry Foundation, which sponsors The Writers Almanac that Garrison Keillor narrates daily on NPR, features on its website an essay entitled “Baseball and Verse, from Tinker to Evers to Big Papi: Grand slam poetry: our twin national pastimes,” which makes me want to hurl.

And not from the pitcher’s mound.

Picture 1Levi Stahl enthusiastically reminds us that it was Whitman who “fell for baseball in its first heyday, saying that it had ‘the snap, go, fling of the American atmosphere.’ ”

And it descends from there in treacly fashion, with doses of Longfellow, Frost, Japanese haiku and even Marianne Moore tossing out a first pitch.

Take me out to that ballgame. Not.

Stahl includes the dreadful Donald Hall poem, “The Baseball Players,” and concludes that “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.”

Gag me.

Stahl is channeling the same Donald Hall, once an American poet laureate, who says on Ken Burns’ overwrought film on the same subject that “baseball, because of its continuity over the space of America and the time of America, is a place where memory gathers.”

Enough. Please. Enough. Mudville is weeping torrential rains. Casey is going go all Carlos Zambrano and take his bat and smash all this.

I wrote yesterday of baseball and memory through prose, and specifically the prose of literary stylists and baseball historians Roger Kahn and Roger Angell.

As I think about why my revulsion for baseball poetry is so deep, I have no rational protest to offer except this: I don’t think the poetic form is suited to reflect the full humanity of baseball.

It seems that our best versers are capable only of sentimental, pastoral ramblings. Oh sure, they write about the failure inherent in the sport — the batting averages, the losses, the errors — but rarely do they plumb deep into the game’s heart of darkness. This is as close as Gail Mazur comes in “Baseball,” a not-so-surprising conclusion to a not-so-surprisingly named poem:

the question of what makes a man
slump when his form, his eye,
his power aren’t to blame, this isn’t
like the bad luck that hounds us,
and his frustration in the games
not like our deep rage
for disappointing ourselves

Gee, thanks Gail. This has always kept me up at night, but now you’ve eased my concerns.

I apologize to those who get into baseball poetry for my crankiness here. Baseball brings out the worst in some of our best poets, who spit out the most overwrought metaphors and the falsest of pieties.

They are more hacktastic than even the hackiest deadline hacks who ever wrote for a newspaper.

It’s what you get if Frank Merriwell could have gotten the hang of rhyming couplets. Abstract, one-dimensional characterizations of a game whose more essential meanings are left for artists in other forms to flesh out.

If you disagree with me, then perhaps you will be comforted by this collection of baseball poems, also lovingly compiled by The Poetry Foundation.

I’ve read more than I care to, but in my next post comes the antidote, thankfully in prose. Stay tuned.

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One Comment

  1. Bern
    Posted March 9, 2013 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    You do Love Baseball. Very Cool.

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