Commentaries - May 2010
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. 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. It's a schticky performance, as so many Ferlinghetti's performances are, but the "revolution round the loaded white bases, / in this last of the great Anglo-Saxon epics, / in the territorio libre of Baseball," is certainly affecting.
Here is a recording of Ferlinghetti reading that poem: "Baseball Canto."
I was pleased to receive a response to this blog post from Steve Fama, who reminded me that it's certainly worth pondering what Ferlinghetti means when he uses words to describe Caribbean, Central American and South American--and African American--baseball players and fans. "Chicano" won't work as a descriptor for the alternative to traditional baseball he means. See above, where I've noted that in square brackets.
Juan Marichal came to the MLB from the Dominican Republic. Tito Fuentes is Cuban. I think Steve and others who have commented on this poem are right when they say that the use of the term "Chicano" to describe the fans at Candlestick is reductive. This reduction is no help to Ferlinghetti's political position against the incursions of the United Fruit Company. The poem is schticky and imprecise.
From left to right: Marcella Durand, Jessica Lowenthal, Jennifer Scappettone. They're in my office at the Writers House, having just finished discussing Susan Howe's reading of Emily Dickinson's "My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun." It's the 32nd episode of the PoemTalk podcast. Please have a listen.