Monday, April 4, 2016

A Rite of Spring—The Poetry of Baseball

When it comes to the High Holy Days of Spring Major League Baseball Opening Day is right up there with Easter and Passover, no question about it.  Today 28 of the 30 Big League teams will take to the field.  My beloved Chicago Cubs, the consensus pick of sports writers and bookies as the National League Champ and World Series favorite, will play late against the Angels in Anaheim.  Take a moment to re-read the last sentence, pick your jaw off the floor, and slap yourself hard.  But it is really true!  The Boys in Blue seem to be the real deal this year.  Which makes me a happy camper.
Baseball is, of course, the perfect game, a challenge as much to the mind as to raw at athleticism, the only game in which an individual takes on the entire opposing team, the only game with no clock and no tie.  As such, it has always appealed to poets who understand its sublime beauty and recognize it as an extended metaphor for life. 
Here at Heretic, Rebel, a Thing to Flout, we have featured most of the best known baseball verse from Casey at the Bat to Tinkers to Evers to Chance and work by such luminaries as Carl Sandburg, Marianne Moore, and Ogden Nash.  This year we are digging deeper.

William Carlos Williams.

The first at bat goes to one of my favorite dead white men,  William Carlos Williams, the physician poet of Rutherford and Patterson, New Jersey.
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

It is beauty itself
that lives

day by day in them

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

—William Carlos Williams

Band leader and lyricist Woodrow Buddy Johnson.

On deck is a piece that was song lyric by Woodrow Buddy Johnson, the leader of a hip and tight eight piece jazz band in the post-World War II years.  It became the most famous of half a dozen musical salutes to Jackie Robinson in his 1949 rookie year.  Johnson’s band featuring his sister Ella on vocals had a minor hit with it, but it broke out even stronger when Count Basie and his big band covered it.  Many who were not around or aware in ’49 will remember the song from Ken Burns’ epic documentary Baseball.  It was a great, swinging jukebox hit, but the lyrics stand on their own as poetry.

Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?

Did you see Jackie Robinson hit that ball?
It went zoomin cross the left field wall.
Yeah boy, yes, yes. Jackie hit that ball.

And when he swung his bat,
the crowd went wild,
because he knocked that ball a solid mile.
Yeah boy, yes, yes. Jackie hit that ball.

Satchel Paige is mellow,
so is Campanella,
Newcombe and Doby, too.
But it’s a natural fact,
when Jackie comes to bat,
the other team is through.

Did you see Jackie Robinson hit that ball?
Did he hit it? Yeah, and that ain’t all.
He stole home.
Yes, yes, Jackie's real gone.

Did you see Jackie Robinson hit that ball?
Did he hit it? Yeah, and that ain’t all.
He stole home.
Yes, yes, Jackie’s real gone.
Jackie’s is a real gone guy.

—Woodrow Buddy Johnson

May Swenson.
You don’t have to be male to love baseball—or to versify about it.  Marianne Moore wrote some of the most famous baseball poetry.   Women do bring a fresh perspective to writing about the game.  May Swenson was a widely admired poet with an unusual background—she grew up in an immigrant family that spoke only Swedish at home and which moved to Salt Lake City, Utah to practice their Mormon religion.  She became an editor at the influential poetry publisher New Directions before leaving to concentrate on her own work.  The recipient of many prizes and honors, she was Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1980 until her death in 1989 at the age of 76.  In this poem she demonstrated originality of vision and an experimental flair for structure.

Analysis of Baseball

It’s about                   Ball fits
the ball,                     mitt, but
the bat,                      not all                
and the mitt.              the time.
Ball hits                     Sometimes
bat, or it                     ball gets hit
hits mitt.                    (pow) when bat
Bat doesn’t                meets it,
hit ball,                      and sails
bat meets it.               to a place
Ball bounces             where mitt
off bat, flies               has to quit
air, or thuds               in disgrace.
ground (dud)             That’s about
or it                            the bases
fits mitt.                     loaded,
                                   about 40,000
Bat waits                    fans exploded.
for ball
to mate.                      It’s about
Ball hates                   the ball,
to take bat’s               the bat,
bait. Ball                    the mitt,
flirts, bat’s                 the bases
late, don’t                   and the fans.
keep the date.             It’s done
Ball goes in                on a diamond,
(thwack) to mitt,        and for fun.
and goes out              It’s about
(thwack) back            home, and it’s
to mitt.                       about run

—May Swenson

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