Poetry in Motion: A Slightly Awkward Attempt to Figure Out What This Term Means (and Thus Maybe Not the Best Example of the Term); Also, an Excuse to Quote Passages of Poetry about Baseball
Occasionally, when we admire a thing – a particular pastime, say – we claim there’s a certain “poetry” to it. If the thing’s a moving body then we might call it “poetry in motion.” For example, we sometimes claim there’s a certain “poetry” to baseball. Or we describe one of its players as “poetry in motion.” But what exactly do we mean by “poetry” in these boasts? In the former, we probably mean “elegance”; in the latter, something made elegant through its mastery of a certain set of rules, through the nimbleness of its follow through. In general, we probably just mean formal poetry. Bear with me here.
A shortstop charging a groundball knows that once he gets a glove on the ball he has a few options, depending on the situation. If there’s a runner on first, the shortstop can flip the ball to second and try for the double-play. Or he can just go to first for the easy out. Or – if he’s moving along some difficult axis at too quick a clip – he can concede the hit and not risk a throwing error. The point is, this body in motion has some choices but a not-unlimited amount of them. This body in motion has got to follow some rules. This body in motion is formal poetry in motion.
Now, if the body in motion belongs to Derek Jeter – a showman of a shortstop whose leaping throws can sometimes seem short on sprezzatura, can seem more spectacular than they need to be – then we might conclude that the poetry in motion, while elegant, is a touch purple in hue, a bit overblown, showy. If the body is outfielder Manny Ramirez’s, running to catch a fly ball and then using the leftover momentum to high-five a fan in the stands – a superfluous, potentially costly aesthetic gesture – before returning the ball to the infield, well, then we have an example of formal poetry that has been marred (or made charming?) by an extraneous foot, an extra stress, something offbeat.
But what kind of poetry is Manny a lot of the other times, when, e.g., he’s clumsily falling on and rolling over an outfield hit? What kind of poetry is Toronto’s Roy Halladay, a superb pitcher but one who sweats, swears, often appears frustrated, in a kind of chronic psychic pain? Or Boston’s pint-sized Dustin Pedroia, a productive hitter but one who wields a swing that sometimes seems a notch too long (a swing which coaches once tried in vain to correct)? Or Boston’s Hideki Okajima, a pitcher whose seemingly unnatural delivery (which, again, coaches once tried to correct) snaps his head down just before he releases the ball? None of these examples are exactly elegant, nimble; they’re slightly clunky, messy. And although they can get the job done, sometimes to brutal effect, they’re not “poetry in motion” or, at least, what we often seem to mean by the term.
A more tolerant, open-minded person could step in here and argue that there’s no such thing as poetry in motion; there are only poetries in motion, so let’s just accept the freer, quirkier examples already. Someone else could argue that we should abandon the term “poetry in motion” altogether since it’s basically meaningless or, worse, too meaningful, as applicable to baseball as it is to a book of poetry pitched across a room, or a poetry-on-public-transit campaign. In general, it may be best to stop stirring the word “poetry” into pastimes like baseball since we risk diluting an already diluted word, a point that others on Harriet, including Annie Finch, have recently suggested.
But if there isn’t any poetry in baseball, there’s certainly baseball in poetry – in these excerpts, anyway, from Marianne Moore’s boisterous “Baseball and Writing” (the indented lines of which have been left-justified, against their will, by Harriet):
It’s a pitcher’s battle all the way – a duel –
a catcher’s, as, with cruel
puma paw, Elston Howard lumbers lightly
back to plate. (His spring
de-winged a bat swing.)
“Mickey, leaping like the devil”—why
gild it, although deer sounds better—
snares what was speeding towards its treetop nest,
one-handing the souvenir-to-be
meant to be caught by you or me.
Those two magnificent saves from the knee—throws
by Boyer, finesses in twos—
like Whitey’s three kinds of pitch and pre-
with pick-off psychosis.
Also, there are solid batting tips in the first four tercets of David Barber’s “Bambino Sutra” (though the rest of the poem has pop):
Swing with everything
You’ve got. Sock it and admire
The arc. This is what
The game is about.
This is the house my clouts built.
Here comes another
Mammoth rip, here comes
My patented thunderclap.
This is the way to
Make the old game grand
Again, going deep in the
Packed house my clouts built.
But poetry gets down baseball’s quieter feats, too. These are the ordinary moments, dimmed by the shade of the stadium, or simply drowned out by the din. Here – and I’ll end with them – are the opening lines of Margaret Avison’s late poem “Poetry Is” (which, if there are substantial relationships between poetry and baseball, has maybe got one of them figured out):
Poetry is always in
At a ballgame when
the hit most matters
and the crowd is half-standing
already hoarse, then poetry’s
eye is astray to a
quiet area to find out
who picks up the bat the runner
flung out of his runway.
Little stuff like that
poetry tucks away in
the little basket of other
Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...