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.
William Carlos Williams’ “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.
Baseball is a language, and, for the fanatic, it is language. It is the baseball fan who continues to make language baseball’s lingua franca.Baseball is a language, and, for the fanatic, it is language. It is the baseball fan who continues to make language baseball’s lingua franca. No more attentive fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers than the poet Marianne Moore ever attended games at Ebbetts Field or read accounts of their ultimate failures in the New York Times the next morning, and the evidence of that strange attention is of course in the poems. Her Dodgers finally won a World Series in 1955, and she combed through New York Times sports-page coverage, pulling phrases that specified her exultation, and made “Hometown Piece for Mssrs. Alston and Reese” something of a collage. From its rhymed title on, the poem seems to poeticize the unpoetical and thus create high-low ironies, but when one lays the poem beside clippings from Times coverage of the Dodgers, and carefully compares them, one realizes the extent to which this writing about baseball—this writing through baseball writing—doesn’t so much restate as rewrite the already published journalism. In doing so it discloses the latter’s myriad normative phrasings, utterly inconsequential and fascinating only when considered out of context. How could contextless phrases such as “get a Night” and “stylist stout” sufficiently convey Dodger mania? Yet they do. Moore is typical of the baseball fanatic in internalizing sportswriting diction only in the particular, and into her own writing—a fan’s writing—assimilated this quality beyond the need of quotation marks; she was beyond creating scare-quote ironies: irked by one misplay, a specialist versed in an extension reach, Podres on the mound. These, though borrowed verbatim from the New York Times, are simply presented in the language of the poem. Are they her words now? She implies no claim of authorship, nor of methodological uniqueness, for the poem itself implies, of its readership, that almost anyone who listens to or reads about baseball over the course of a sufficient numbers of days, or seasons, will be capable of reproducing phrases like "a specialist versed in an extension reach," despite its odd abstraction, its slightly unidiomatic quality, its seemingly contrived “poetic” assonance and consonance. Marianne Moore’s point is that such phrases are not poetic. They are in the ambience. The fan dating back to the 1930s, for instance, makes the mere substitution of “skein” for “string” and in doing so sufficiently conjures a whole ethos. “On August 3rd ,” Roger Angell remembered, “Lefty Grove shut out the Yankees, terminating a string (sorry: a skein) of three hundred and eight consecutive games . . . in which the Bombers had never once been held scoreless.” This is not merely adept verbal imitation. It is the word as entrypoint for whole contact. Possibly our most self-conscious writer of baseball writing, Angell has frequently claimed to despise the baseball-is-life/life-is-baseball conceit. Yet an essay in Once More around the Park and Game Time finds its way—-characteristically moves toward its unanticipated main point—not narratively and certainly not thematically, but along an associational sequence of words and phrases conjured from someone else’s account of a game. Finding himself at one point rewriting the play-by-play account of a Fourth of July weekend game between the Giants and the Cardinals, his writing of the old words merges into those of reporter John Debinger, and here are some: “dazzled a crowd,” “bewildered the Cardinals,” “master lefthander of Bill Terry’s amazing hurling corps,” “broadshouldered Roy Parmelee strode to the mound.” He comes to the point of remembering his father’s love of the game, and then his own love of his father, by way of remembering his own love of the language used by others, in his father’s era, to describe the game. He bears out his hatred of baseball is like life but affirms baseball is like language.
Angell in “Early Innings” discovered as he wrote that recalling the language of that baseball era with more rather than less accuracy, at the level of tone and diction, meant a more rather than less complete psycho-emotional presentation of his childhood. The essay would finally about his father, or more specifically the extent of the father’s connections to the present writer, and the turning point is Angell’s admission that the topic was latent, unconscious, and that the necessary method was that of unintended disclosure—the revelation of the writing’s very topic. “When I began writing this brief memoir,” he self-referentially confesses, “I was surprised to find how often its trail circled back to my father. If I continue now with his baseball story, instead of my own, it’s because the two are so different yet feel intertwined and continuous.” And only then, three pages from the end of the piece, does the fan begin to narrate the early innings: “He was born in 1889 . . . ,” etc. The game itself, as always, begins at the beginning, but the fan’s work of writing through the game ends there. Prior to that is (for so many, so often, so continuously) the discernment through writing of the reason for this inversion. A half page above Angell’s “I was surprised to find” confession—prior to the birth of the father—the son keeps his first mitt “in top shape with neat’s-foot oil,” and only after instating the practice learns the etymology. “What’s a neat?” he remembers asking. Then they pitch and catch. Then the young emergent fan, now the older eminent writer, rediscovers the precisely appropriate diction, chooses to reproduce it and addresses us: “Yes, reader: we threw the old pill around.”