The deep relationship between baseball and language has been remarked many times, but rarely if ever has it been enacted in the writing itself. Kevin Varrone’s Box Score is that enactment. Moment by moment, innings (as it were) of prose poems throw the ultimate linguistic eephus. Play by play wordplay struck by bits of ash verbal industry. No open-field poem can find the strike zone. It must go awry and in doing so presents a perfect game—rare but imaginable, and worth staying ‘til the end.
I was honored recently to be asked by Kevin Varrone to read and record a section of his emergent long series poem on baseball, Box Score. Above is the section he asked me to perform, and here is the recording I made for him. I can’t wait to see (and listen to) this book.
Paul Blackburn performed his poem “7th Game : 1960 Series,” which had been written in 1960, on or near the first day of the 1971 baseball season, during a reading he gave at SUNY Cortland. The poem was later republished in Blackburn’s Collected Poems (here is a PDF copy). The New York Yankees (Blackburn’s team) were heavy favorites in their series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and vastly outscored the underdogs in the seven games. But the Pirates won on a home run by a light-hitting second baseman in the final at-bat of the final game (what we now call a “walk off”). As Blackburn introduces the poem, the Cortland audience laughs; listeners to the audio-only recording now might be confused by this, but we think you can safely guess that Blackburn had just put on his Yankee cap.
George Bowering and I have exchanged emails every so often about our mutual interest in baseball, and — although this hasn’t been the explicit topic of our casual backs and forth — about why baseball has been such an attraction to poets writing in the experimental tradition. It might just be that because there are so many fans of baseball, and because there are many experimental poets, the demographic probabilities are in favor of producing the Bowerings. But I think it’s more than that. I’m pleased to recommend Bowering’s Baseball: A Poem in the Magic Number 9 (inexpensive paperback available here), but that’s not why I’m writing today. Today I want to introduce you to a book-length poem Kevin Verrone has been writing. It is not published yet but, as I understand it, is complete in manuscript. The title of the book is “Box Score : An Autobiography” and has, in addition to the fairly standard quip about our childhoods from the late Bart Giamatti, a lovely and relevant epigraph from Andrew Zawaki:
: weighted and found wanting : this unaccustomed light
Verrone’s book is a series of prose poems and here are several:
Ah, the way we humans find ways to mythologize water. It flows into almost every narrative we make about origins. Here's my favorite instance of this:
On April 16, 1964, the day before Shea Stadium officially opened, Bill Shea christened the Mets' new home with two symbolic bottles of water: one from the Gowanus Canal, near Ebbets Field, the former home of the Brooklyn Dodgers and one from the Harlem River, near the Polo Grounds, where the New York Giants had played and later the Mets during their first two years. The next morning, April 17th, construction workers were painting outfield signs and fresh sod was being laid in the outfield as the teams took batting practice. (The Mets lost, 4-3, to Pittsburgh that afternoon.
I hardly need to say that the Mets were originally conceived as a balm to the wounds felt by Giant and Dodgers fans whose National League teams were stolen from them (moving to California) in the late 50s, in moves that have often and can really only be interpreted as white flight. By the way, my friend Peter Tarr, who passed along this factoid to me, himself attended that first Shea game, April 18, 1964, the first of many, many losses Pete has endured.
The Poetry Society of America's web site is featuring short pieces on favorite poems. Spring and All is perhaps my favorite poetic sequence, for what it's worth, so when asked by PSA to write about a short poem, I chose the "At the ball game" section of the sequence. I was at the time writing an essay for the Cambridge University Press companion to baseball (my first time ever publishing something in print on the beloved game) so WCW's take on the crowd struck me particularly. (My essay for the Cambridge book is on "the baseball fan," a topic I'd written about several times in this blog.) Here is your link to the little essay on the PSA site.
Some thoughts on the importance of women as baseball fans begin with the ironically positive effect of Charlie Finley’s otherwise usually destructive mania for marketing his Athletics. When the team resided in Kansas City, he deemed it a good stunt to hire the first woman to be part of a baseball radio team. Her name was Betty Caywood, and she spent most of her on-air time talking about happenings in the grandstands. For Finley it was “another way of keeping attention away from what was happening on the diamond” — in other words, drawing attention away from poorly played baseball. The diversionary stunt had the ironic effect of focusing listeners ever more on the whole game. By permitting Caywood’s narrative peregrinations away from the game being played on the field, Finley was not, to be sure, promoting equality of gendered perspective, nor was he expressing any kind of belief in the voice of the fan. But he was exploring the (actually quite profitable) world of words emanating directly from the fan-centered game, the convergence of baseball and language that “generate[s] excitement — / a fever in the victim,” as Marianne Moore described it in a poem called “Baseball and Writing.” Moore was a fanatical Brooklyn Dodger devotee, and her poem, which begins “Writing is exciting / and baseball is like writing,” was written not in response to a game but to “post-game broadcasts.” To whom,” she asks, does the victimhood of generated excitement apply? “Who is excited?” “[P]itcher, catcher, fielder, batter”? On the contrary: “Might it be I?” This is the poetic “I” — the speaker, but, more generally, the voice teaching us to see what should be seen. This is the “I” that observes “Carl Furillo’s . . . big gun” (which drove in four of the team’s six runs on a day remembered in the poem) but celebrates “fans dancing in delight” in response. Moore was devoted to the game but the lens of her devotion was a wandering eye that spots, for example, “the Dodger Band in [section] 8, row 1.” That motley ensemble was famously capable of improvising — for example, playing “Why Not Take All of Me?” when the local tax collector happened to walk by. As a form of expression analogous to Don Zimmer’s surprising infield dexterity (feats Moore elsewhere extolled), such extemporaneity was the whole poetry of the Dodgers.
William Carlos Williams’s “The crowd at the ball game,” a piece of the famous Spring and All sequence, bothers not at all to observe the game being played. Its power as art derives from “the power of their faces,” and it watches fans watching the game and calls the precision with which they do so beautiful. “The crowd at the ball game / is moved uniformly / by a spirit of uselessness.” There is no meaning or purpose to “the exciting detail / of the chase / and the escape, the error / the flash of genius.” These are “all to no end save beauty.” Williams both fears and loves the convergence of unity and diversity at a baseball game. The potential classlessness of the fans makes the crowd far more progressive than the game itself, thus justifying a poem about baseball that only glancingly mentions what happens on the field. Spring and All generally promulgates aspects of democratic culture apt for the modernist keen to observe fragmentation, cultural breakdown, disarray, and the reversal of traditional subject-object relations (observing the seers seeing rather than simply reporting the seen). The modernist’s fan-centered game bore out Jane Addams’ more overtly political question: Did not baseball belong to “the undoubted power of public recreation to bring together all classes of a community in the modern city unhappily so full of devices for keeping men apart?”
Watching baseball, sitting in the sun, reading Ezra Pound. Lawrence Ferlinghetti wants an Hispanic or African American [not "Chicano" per se] member of the San Francisco Giants to hit a hole through the Anglo-Saxon epic. He sees Willie Mays flee around the bases as if being chased by the United Fruit Company. The entire panoply of political consequences of his love of the American Other are played out in front of him on the diamond, the nation's traditional (and Irish coplike ump-dominated) game.