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
unfamiliar territory.

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

Originally Published: March 31st, 2009

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...

  1. March 31, 2009
     Jennifer Clarvoe

    Jason -- \r

    Thanks for these baseball poems.\r

    My best moments as a baseball fan were when I was in grad school with the time to follow day games and night games in both San Francisco and Oakland. I can't say that makes me a perfect fan -- I loved both the Giants and the A's, so I can't have loved either of them properly (which would have meant exclusively). But there was the week when I woke up and realized I could tell you not only my team's statistics, but who was leading the league (either league) in triples, etc. No mistaking it, I was hooked. I carried my poems around in a folder with Will Clark's game face on the front. But then I left the Bay Area for the Midwest, where you can't even get the west coast night game scores in the day papers, and I didn't have time to keep track, and my players were getting traded to other teams. But it does mean that my most intense time as a baseball fan coincided with some of my most intense reading of poetry.\r

    For me, *the* baseball poem about poetry in motion is William Carlos Williams' "The crowd at the ball game," from Spring and All. The crowd is caught up in, delighted by "all the exciting detail / of the chase// and the escape, the error/ the flash of genius." That is, they get from it something like what Williams wants us to get from a poem -- the specific, surprising ride it takes us on. Furthermore, this might go some way to redeem the crowd -- "So in detail, they, the crowd, are beautiful." I think this suggests (among other things) that to the extent that being in a crowd at a ballgame wakes each of us up, and amplifies that waking, it's to be celebrated. But Williams also lets the poem pivot here -- and warns against the unthinking (no longer in detail) danger of the crowd...\r

    The crowd at the ball game\r
    is moved uniformly\r

    by a spirit of uselessness\r
    which delights them--\r

    all the exciting detail \r
    of the chase\r

    and the escape, the error\r
    the flash of genius--\r

    all to no end save beauty\r
    the eternal--\r

    So in detail, they, the crowd,\r
    are beautiful\r

    for this \r
    to be warned against\r

    saluted and defied--\r
    It is alive, venomous\r

    it smiles grimly\r
    its words cut--\r

    The flashy female with her \r
    mother, gets it--\r

    The Jew gets it straight--it\r
    is deadly, terrifying--\r

    It is the Inquisition, the\r

    It is beauty itself\r
    that lives\r

    day by day in them\r

    This is \r
    the power of their faces\r

    It is summer, it is the solstice\r
    the crowd is\r

    cheering, the crowd is laughing\r
    in detail,\r

    permanently, seriously\r
    without thought\r


    Yours in the common pursuit,\r

    Jennifer Clarvoe

  2. March 31, 2009
     michael robbins

    I don't understand these complaints about applying poetry to arenas other than verse, unless they take in everyone from Sidney to Shelley as well. Shipbuilding, anyone?

  3. April 1, 2009
     Jack Conway

    I would like to offer my following two baseball themed poems. I have noted the appropriate credits. Thank you.\r


    Scouting Report \r
    Hamlet’s playing first. It couldn’t be worse. \r
    He’s still haunted by the ghost of his play at home last season. \r
    Richard’s on second. Where else? He seems to have gotten over the hump. \r
    Romeo’s young but he made it to third base. \r
    Puck Goodfellow’s playing short. He’s been goofing off. \r
    Othello, the Big Fella’s out in left field. He’s been choking a lot this season. \r
    Macbeth’s in center field. He’s mad as hell about that. \r
    Shylock’s covering right but cheating up the line. \r
    Iago’s behind the plate calling the shots. \r
    And Lear is on the mound. His eyesight’s gone but he’s still got some stuff. \r
    Play by Play \r
    Hamlet strikes out. Who wouldn’t in his condition? \r
    Richard hits a short grounder and gallops to first. \r
    Romeo gets called on strikes and the crowd begins to boo him. “Hey Romeo! Where for art thou in this game?” \r
    Puck toys with the pitcher. “Yeah big fairy,” he taunts him and belts one down the right field line. \r
    Richard heads for second. Puck is safe at first. \r
    Macbeth takes a walk. \r
    Bases loaded and the Big Fella is up. \r
    A swing and a miss. \r
    Othello steps away from the plate. \r
    Iago calls from the dugout, “Watch out for the curve ball.” \r
    Another swing and a miss. Othello wants to kill that ball. \r
    It looks like curtains for the home team. \r
    Look out, Richard’s stealing home. \r
    He hits the dirt and slides beneath the tag. \r
    The crowd goes wild. \r
    He dusts himself off and doesn’t have a scratch. \r
    “The prick doesn’t bleed,” Shylock screams lifting him onto his shoulders. \r
    The play’s the thing. \r
    Oh, somewhere crowds are clapping. \r
    Somewhere critics rave. \r
    There is great joy around the Globe \r
    Mighty Shakespeare wrote a play.\r

    Published in roger, The Roger Williams University Literary Magazine, Spring 2008\r

    # # #\r


    Blessed be the first baseman, \r
    who stretches for an errant throw \r
    with the utmost grace and style. \r

    Blessed be the runner, \r
    who takes off to steal second, \r
    for he will be out by a mile.\r

    Blessed be the pop-up fly out to center field, \r
    for he has an arm like a rocket, \r
    and will fire it home to where the catcher waits.\r

    Blessed be the runner, sliding into home,\r
    for he will inherit the earth \r
    but never reach the plate.\r

    Blessed be the grounder, dribbling down to third,\r
    for the shortstop will bare-hand it\r
    and then fire it away.\r

    Blessed be the batter, \r
    for he will be shown no mercy,\r
    for hitting into a double play. \r

    Blessed be the fastball,\r
    for it goes ninety miles an hour\r
    and is seldom hit.\r

    Blessed be the batter,\r
    who swings with all his power\r
    but knows that he still missed.\r

    Rejoice and be glad, for although your reward\r
    may not be in the kingdom of heaven, after all,\r
    it will be in winning the pennant\r
    sometime this late fall.\r

    # # #\r

    Aethlon, East Tennessee State University, a print journal designed to celebrate the intersection of literature with the world of play, games, and sport (2009)

  4. April 1, 2009
     Zachariah Wells

    Never mind Sidney, Michael. Aristotle. If anything, poetry is far too often identified with verse.

  5. April 1, 2009
     Aaron Fagan

    Michael Mentions shipbuilding. January 11, 1944 the SS Harriet Monroe was launched, a merchant marine vessel named after POETRY magazine's founding editor. Most likely an honor bestowed for her Columbian Ode at Chicago's World Fair.\r

    In March 2003, a researcher from Dallas contacted the National Archives for information about the SS Harriet Monroe.\r

    The merchant marine is a fleet that carries imports and exports during peacetime - and that delivers troops and supplies in times of war. During World War II, many merchant mariners saw military action.\r

    Merchant mariners now have veterans' status, entitling them to veterans' benefits for injuries sustained in action.\r

    The researcher's father-in-law claimed he had served on the crew of the SS Harriet Monroe and had come under enemy fire in the Philippines on January 12, 1945. But he needed proof to obtain veterans' benefits for injuries resulting from that action.\r

    Official logbooks were issued to merchant vessels at the beginning of each voyage and were turned in at the end. The National Archives facility in San Bruno, CA, holds about 11,000 official merchant vessel logbooks for voyages that terminated at the port of San Francisco.\r

    Archives technician Joseph Sanchez found the official logbook of the SS Harriet Monroe for a voyage that commenced at San Francisco in September 1944 and terminated there in April 1945.\r

    The logbook included a crew list that confirmed the father-in-law's presence on the ship; however, the book did not contain a single entry mentioning enemy action on or around January 12.\r

    But Sanchez knew of another collection of World War II - era logbooks, known as the "secret logbooks" because they once were classified. In the formerly secret logbook of the SS Harriet Monroe for that same voyage, he found several entries describing enemy action on January 12, 1945.\r

    The researcher's father-in-law now has the proof he needs and is able to claim full veterans' medical benefits for his injuries.

  6. April 2, 2009
     Annie Finch

    That is so cool that a ship was named after Harriet Monroe!! In fact, when the current crew of bloggers were meeting each other for the first time, the metaphor of embarking on a voyage together came up. And here we are, on a particular and actual ship, hopefully a seaworthy one whose wake will have the elegance and control of poetry in motion....\r

    Jason, your implication that the term involves discipline, grace within rules, thus the formality of poetry as opposed to other kinds of language is suggestive. This idea might help explain why the art of poetry is chosen from all other arts for this honor---why nobody says "painting in motion": because poetry, unlike painting or musical composition, has as its base material something we all use every day, words, and so the WAY in which those words are used is the only way the poetry is created.\r

    I used to love watching Manny, and much as I hate him now, now he's no longer in the Red Sox, I'm not sure how much I'm looking forward to the next few months...

  7. April 2, 2009
     michael robbins

    Btw Jason: hast heard the Baseball Project? Steve Wynn & Scott McCaughey make with the anthemnic rock à la the Hold Steady, 'cept about baseball. Songs include "Ted Fucking Williams," "Satchel Paige Said," "Past Time," &c. "When Campy Campaneris played all nine positions in a game / When Pete Rose demolished Ray Fosse he was never the same / 31 wins and an album on Capitol for Denny McLain."\r

    I don't even care about baseball, but it's a great record.

  8. April 2, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Jennifer and Jack, thanks for sharing the baseball poems! I especially enjoyed "Sermon on the Mound" and reading about Jennifer's experiences. Jennifer, I think it's great to have divided loyalties. A friend of mine from the States, living here in Toronto, is a Reds AND Jays fan. (I, alas, am merely a Jays fan.)\r

    Zach and Michael, good points. Michael, I don't know that record, but it sounds like great fun. Thanks for the tip.\r

    Aaron, Annie's right, that is cool. I'm glad you shared it.\r

    Annie, I think you're right about another thing, too: 'painting in motion' might be a bit clumsy. \r

    And hey, here's another old adage, w/ its baseball equivalent: Art for art's sake = Manny being Manny?!?

  9. April 3, 2009
     Aaron Fagan

    But isn't poetry a kind of "secret logbook"?