I’ll be turning 30 next month, the age at which most ballplayers’ skills begin to erode. But what about poets? Do you think there is a peak age for turning in your best verse? Do we spend more of our lives on the uptick or the decline?
And what's the poet's best version of learning the knuckleball—that is, an entirely new skill to extend the career?
Gosh, if poets followed the same trajectory as the typical baseball player, it would look something like this:
...but that’s not how it has to go, thankfully.
Here’s to performance-enhancing drugs.
I own plenty of baseball memorabilia, but most of it’s in storage. Here in my apartment I have a baseball signed by seven Hall of Famers; a Johnny Damon autograph; an old Ernie Banks card. I also have a neat issue of SPORT from May 1951, which my mother picked up for me at a flea market on a lark.
SPORT was a monthly that predated Sports Illustrated and featured great color photography and a roster of famed sports writers. The advertisements are hilarious today, but the articles made demigods out of both the athletes and the authors.
To the younger generations, Grantland Rice is known as little more than the namesake of Grantland.com, known for its middle- to high-brow snark. Rice, on the other hand, made his name famous through the purplest of prose. His legacy focuses on his penchant for aggrandizement and hero worshiping—something professional sports no doubt needed in the first half of the 20th century.
My copy of SPORT was issued during Rice’s 50th year as a sports journalist. His assignments had become retrospection, and his article “The Cavalcade of Baseball” delivers all his signature touches. He begins with grandiose historical perspective: “Baseball has given this country more thrills than any other sport ever gave any nation. Baseball has furnished more entertainment for more people than any game ever invented.”
The essay provides proof of the game’s greatness through recitation of the greatest hitters, pitchers, and teams Grantland ever saw. Cobb was the best player; Shoeless Joe was the best hitter. Rube Waddell, whom Rice played against in college, had “a greater combination of speed and curves than any pitcher that ever lived.”
The question: does any writer have reason to remember, let alone study, Grantland Rice today? Is it fair for a kingmaker to be forgotten, or is it just the nature of sports writing?
A longtime Newsweek columnist and son of Ring, John Lardner’s obituary described him as “a sort of high-priced utility infielder for top-echelon American magazines.” John grew up around Fitzgerald and other celebrities, as well as Grantland Rice, due to his father’s career.
Lardner’s entry in my SPORT was one of those terribly ridiculous human interest pieces, memorializing a diminutive, boozehound shortstop named Walter “The Rabbit” Maranville. He only fielded fly balls by the basket catch (at the waist) and was lovingly called “unprintable” names by Babe Ruth and other friends.
The piece is titled “They’ll Never Forget the Rabbit,” but I must confess that I had never heard of the Rabbit nor John Lardner before opening up this magazine.
Blatz beer, Power Bilt golf clubs, Western Arms Corp. automatic pistols… The only mistake Branch Rickey ever made was selling away Chico Carrasquel… “the game which we call our national pastime today bears about as much resemblance to the 1842 version as a 1951 Cadillac does to a Stutz Bearcat”… Baseball is a TV headache—the problem of squeezing a whole ball game into a 12½-inch screen is still baffling the video experts… Anyone who doesn’t score a baseball game, whether he is at the park or watching the action on his television screen, is short-changing himself”—Red Barber…
With the Dodgers headed to the next round of the playoffs— and the Yankees and Mets bruised–it’s hard not to imagine what NYC would feel like if the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn.
Frank Sinatra memorialized the Dodgers’ move with the melancholy ode “There Used to Be a Ballpark.” It doesn't take a poetry MFA to figure out that it's about the death of childhood, too. Really depressing stuff. Forcing a baseball-related song onto his humble vanity album, baseball announcer Tim McCarver included a version of it on Tim McCarver Sings Selections from the Great American Songbook (a brief listen to free samples will satisfy curiosity).
McCarver, a former All-Star catcher and somehow an Emmy-award winning TV analyst, will announce his last World Series this month. This isn't like the Bums leaving Brooklyn or Mariano Rivera calling it quits. McCarver's exit will receive sarcastic applause. Mercifully, the worst of the ridiculing and chastisement will end.
Finish the sentence however you will: The thing about Tim McCarver’s announcing is, is that his announcing is...
The face of Tim McCarver adorns a mock-Mount Rushmore on the niche blog Awful Announcing. He’s been mocked on “Family Guy,” reviled on Twitter, and muted by millions. Some have filed petitions on Change.org to ask Fox to remove him, as though his employment assaults human decency.
How could someone so bad at a job be elevated to its highest level and remain there for decades?
McCarver’s follies range from would-be Yogiisms (“Bob Gibson is the luckiest pitcher in baseball. He is always pitching when the other team doesn’t score any runs.”) to the flatly erroneous (“It’s a five-letter word. S-t-r-i-k-e.”). Other memorable moments have been more inexplicable, like confusing Barry Bonds with Barry Manilow.
It’s easy to dislike Tim McCarver’s job performance. Yet try articulating why you hate Tim McCarver to someone who doesn’t like sports, and you’ll sound like a cantankerous ass. Where does such venomous anger come from?
McCarver enjoyed a long playing career, mostly remembered for being the trusted catcher of Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton. He won the World Series twice, including the socially tumultuous championship season chronicled in David Halberstam’s narrative October 1964.
Turning to the microphone upon retirement from the game, McCarver played a key role in the modernization of sports announcing. His early work was considered groundbreaking analysis rather than mere commentary.
That he misses the mark for today’s listeners is probably his fault—at 71, McCarver is years younger than many announcers who keep up with the sport and do not incite rage in the listener—but we cannot blame McCarver for Fox’s decision to keep him on the job. Longevity implies tradition, something a television company hopes to create when producing sports shows.
McCarver will likely be heard from again, but never in the All-Star Game or World Series. For better or worse, October television won’t be the same without him.
Personalities, rather than geographies, drive baseball fandom more than ever. Personnel moves via free agency, fantasy sports leagues, and streaming broadcasts online all make it less likely that you feel compelled to root, root, root for the home team. Better to find the one that speaks to your soul. For these 2013 playoffs, find your true match with this handy personality guide:
St. Louis Cardinals: You believe that the best Italian food is served in restaurants with at least one table full of men playing some game that isn’t poker, but it isn’t dominoes, and you’re not really sure if one of them is the owner or what. Budweiser may not be the best beer, but it sure quenches your thirst. If not from Missouri, then your home state can best be described as “a quadrilateral.”
Los Angeles Dodgers: You take great pleasure in buying things without even glancing at the price tag.
Atlanta Braves: I met the parents of Braves outfielders Justin and B.J. Upton this summer, and let me tell you: good people right there. Just downright good folks all around. And that’s what cheering for the Atlanta Braves is all about: good pitching and defense, a mix of power and speed, Ted Turner, hot dogs, apple pie, and Delta Airlines. Oh, but they still do that tomahawk chant…so, like, you probably need to be okay with that if you’re going to be a Braves fan. [Note: the Braves are now out of the playoffs, but don't worry. They never truly go away.]
Pittsburgh Pirates: Love an underdog? Sure, everyone does. We still talk about Pittsburgh as though the Rust Belt tag will never go away, but take another look. The Andy Warhol Museum, Carnegie Mellon, reasonable hotel rates. Beautiful terraced parks along not one, not two, but three rivers! A.J. Burnett isn’t even their best pitcher anymore. All right, these guys are no longer underdogs. You want an underdog, try finding October baseball in Birmingham, which was nicknamed “The Pittsburgh of the South” a hundred years ago. Think about that.
Tampa Bay Rays: You live in the Tampa/St. Petersburg metropolitan area, love baseball, and had no established ties to another major league franchise prior to 1998. Perfect, you’re a Rays fan now. Would you like to go to the beach instead?
Boston Red Sox: How do you feel about haircuts? They’re the worst, right? Close, but shaving is worse than haircuts. Shaving is for Yalies. You, contrariwise, went to school in Boston—er-herm, Cambridge—so you find that when a gentleman attends sporting matches, he does so not to identify with the athletes, but to bemuse himself over the hirsute specimens on the field. Any of this working for you? If so, you’re wicked into the Sox. If not, but you hate the Yankees, then you are also wicked into the Sox.
Oakland Athletics: The team that brought you Reggie, Rickey, and the Bash Brothers today offers scintillating OPS+ figures from a roster replete with young men, who, despite making only $2.4MM per year each, all play professional baseball pretty well.
Detroit Tigers: Bummed about the prospect of a city selling off fine art to pay debts? Would a 2013 American League Central Division Champions t-shirt cheer you up?
“I don’t like intentional walks,” my mother-in-law says, looking up from her iPad to reveal that she has been paying more attention to the game than I realized. “I always hope the next batter hits a home run or something.” Like the pitcher would deserve it for being such a wimp.
I might argue with her notion. I could begin a twenty-minute statistics-laden speech about all the outcomes after putting the man on base. But I know exactly what she means: just pitch the damn ball.
My team has already been eliminated from the playoffs, so I’m watching academically. It feels neutered at best, masochistic at worst. Like attending a grade school play starring other people’s children, I assume.
Without emotion driving the watching experience, there’s nothing to do except think about all the Moneyball-famed stats at play. Ya know, ma, the next batter has a terrible groundball-to-flyball ratio…
We sit and watch the guy getting paid millions toss a ball lazily through the air, a safe distance away from the limply drooping bat of the would-be batsmen. It’s a boring play, to be sure, and the fans are always going to boo it, even while football fans (of lesser intelligence, ostensibly, right?) have a calm understanding of the even-more-boring quarterback kneel.
I get why the intentional walk draws boos, but it’s also dramatic. Tantric, even. And I don’t mean the sexy statistics found strewn like rose petals in the silky spreadsheets of Baseball-Reference.com.
It’s because the lack of a time clock is the most objectively superior thing about baseball. A pitcher cannot win by taking a knee in the middle of the field. He can’t pass the ball or puck around to his teammates just to kill time.
What a pitcher can do is intentionally walk a batter to face a weaker one instead, or to create a double play possibility. It’s a gamble, though, and he still must pitch the damn ball to the next guy.
It’s Saturday night in Oakland, scoreless in the bottom of the ninth. The first two batters get hits. With men at first and third and nobody out, the home team is almost guaranteed to score and win. The intentional walk merely dents Oakland’s Wins Probability Added measure.
So to the chagrin of my mother-in-law and 40,000 Oakland fans, Detroit’s Al Alburquerque intentionally walks the next batter, Josh Reddick, a volatile and cocky kid from Georgia who hit a paltry .226 this year and claims to be, underneath his survivalist/conspiracist shaggy beard, “way better looking” than Brad Pitt. The Hollywood version of the guy’s real-life boss. Sometimes you just can’t let that guy beat you.
The Oakland Athletics fans had all spent hundreds of dollars to be there and every single one had bothered to dress up in the team’s terrible green and yellow palette. Detroit’s manager makes the smart move, but the Oakland fans deserve a show. They boo the intentional walk.
The delay only makes the exuberance to come moments later all the more cathartic, some three hours into the scoreless marathon. An unheralded catcher, a goateed roster-filler, steps up to the plate. The pitcher pitches the damn ball, as eventually he always must.
Just about everyone I know in Los Angeles knows I am planning to go to Dodger Stadium on Friday evening to watch Clayton Kershaw go for his sixteenth victory in a game of little consequence inasmuch as the team has clinched the division and the fellows are just tuning up before their first playoff opponent next week. It may have no bearing on the pennant race, but I wouldn't call it meaningless: the game is as full of rituals and meanings as a certain kind of epic poem, an Edenic fantasy of the kind that Bart Giamatti loved.
So my friend Eric and I drive up Elysian Park Avenue in his jeep, passing a guy holding a sign begging for a ticket. We park on the left field lot, then walk around to our seats along the right field line. Watching the crowd, which is part of the show, you realize that people have many reasons for going to baseball games and watching the game is only one of them. Peanuts, beer, the seventh-inning stretch, the organ playing "Put on a Happy Face" for old-timers and the YMCA song for green-eyed teens in hoodies, the ubiquitous telephones in camera mode, the woman in provocative courtesan attire with her male friend in a t-shirt that says "that's right, bitch" two rows ahead of us. It's like an amusement park, wwith beachballs even, though I stil fail to understand the attraction of bouncing the thing around the loge or field levels. There's even a bar where you can watch the game on television with Vin Scully's commentary, eat Dodger Dogs and drink old fashioneds in peace and quiet. The bartender takes pride in his work.
In spite of all temptations we are intent on watching the game, not the scoreboard. In the top of the first, Kershaw takes care of the Rockies with exteme prejudice -- maybe a dozen pitches at most. The Dodgers get a base hit from Crawford, another from Gonzalez, then Uribe slams a double to the wall, Ellis the catcher singles and goes to second on a misguided throw, then Ellis the second baseman does the exact same thing, and LA is up 4-0. A couple of innings go by. Gonzalez, nicknamed A-Gon, homers to right -- it's his hundredth RBI of the season. Crawford's three-run home run is a beautiful arc just inside the foul pole in right field. It lifts the game to 8-0 and the rout is on. Kershaw has had the worst run support of any Dodger starter but they're making up for it tonight. Now it's 10-0, thanks to an A.J. Ellis two-run shot.
Well, there's little for a Dodger fan to dislike in a game that ends 11-0 in favor of the boys in blue. This is what I wrote to a fellow enthusiast in the immedate aftermath:
Kershaw has an arresting motion and is righteously competitive at the plate; he was on base for the three-run homer. I think this victory, lowering his league-best era and adding to his strikeout lead, assures him the Cy Young. Puig threw an out-of-play ball in the general direction of where we were sitting and a man in the next row captured it. Otherwise Puig did nothing spectacular although his very presence is electric whether fouling a ball off his foot, spinning around at the plate, or nonchalantly catching a fly ball. Kemp made a gorgeous play. Mark Ellis made a tough play look routine. I believe the Dodgers lead the major leagues in shutouts, and tonight may have brought the total up to twenty-one. The poor Rockies, hapless in the field, over-matched by Kershaw through the first six innings, made Marmol, Capuano, and League, who pitched the seventh, eight, and ninth, look like the legal team you'd least like to go up against in a weak-case suit. Kershaw's bow on the dugout steps in the bottom of the sixth when he knew he was going to be lifted was probably the nicest moment of the night. Now if they would only hit like this in the playoffs. . .
David Remnick proves that in addition to his manifold other literary and journalistic skills he is an ace book reviewer (The New Yorker, November 28, 2011, pp.75-78). He has explained that in media parlance the sports section of a paper is the "toy department." After mentioning Dave Kindred's book on Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali, Remnick sums up in a single sentence the significance, the character, and the value of the book under review, the book whose publication is the pretext for the article:
A new book, "Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports" (Norton; $29.95), by Mark Ribowsky, is a far less distinguished sepcimen of the biographical art -- full of familiar tales and florid prose -- though its appearance at least succeeds in reminding us of Cosell's singularity in the toy department.
Perfect. I happen to share Remnick's opinion of Cosell as a cultural phenomenon; I associate him with the 1962 NY Mets (he did the postgame show on the radio with "big Ralph Number Thirteen Branca"), the meteoric rise of Sandy Koufax, the whole Ali saga, Monday Night Football, Foreman knocking down Frazier, Sinatra's comeback concert in the Garden, the intelligence, the vanity, the chutzpah, and the voice of melodrama. As Remnick writes, "With Cosell, there was the faintest of lines between self and self-parody, and yet through all the outlandish blowhardery there was a pilot light of sane judgment." He was pure entertainment -- but with layers of intelligence and irony you seldom get in the coverage of sports. "If you could laugh with him, if you got him, Cosell was irresistible, a singular American figure. In television's toy department, he has never been replaced." -- DL
First, I salute David for this beautiful essay. There is no doubt that he could have been a great sportswriter, and as this piece shows, it's not too late either. I have been inspired to offer a few thoughts.
First, as the editors of the NY Times have themselves acknowledged, a weakness of the paper has always been the failure to develop a really good sports section. Red Smith was certainly the best columnist they ever had, but as I think John Stuart Mill once said in another connection (or perhaps it was said about John Stuart Mill) "his eminence reveals the flatness of the surrounding terrain." Apparently there is some basic contradiction between the unique identity of the NY Times and the sports section of a newspaper. It's hard to imagine writers like Jim Murray, Jimmy Cannon, or David Condon publishing in the New York Times. That's life.
A.J. Liebling was one of those writers I wanted to like and the topics he wrote about seemed interesting, but I was completely disappointed in him. Whether he was writing about boxing, eating, or (especially) the city of Chicago, I sensed that in those days New Yorker writers must have been paid by the word. Just terrible. But he's still vastly better than Joseph Mitchell, another New Yorker writer whom I wanted to like. Joseph Mitchell is really the worst.
Onward. I am not free to disclose my sources, but the legendary collapse of the Chicago Cubs in 1969, which allowed the Mets to win the pennant, was caused in large part by a feud between Cubs manager Leo Durocher and Cubs third baseman Ron Santo -- both of them megalomaniacs. There were eleven games left in the season and I believe the Cubs only had to win one of them in order to get the pennant, but the Cubs lost them all. Something like that. Durocher's stepson was in my class when I was a seventh grade gym teacher that Fall, and he was really a great kid. It was certainly a difficult situation for him. We never spoke about what was happening during "the collapse."
Marciano, LaMotta, Graziano, Basilio, Joey Giardello, those guys were like Roman legionaries. Basilio and Giardello were boxers to some extent but the others were brawlers like gladiators with short swords. Marciano had wanted to be a baseball player more than a boxer. His advantage was that he loved to train. Heavyweights in that era weighed about 185 pounds, which was Marciano's weight. This continued up through Floyd Patterson's reign. Against Sonny Liston and the 220 pound men who followed him, Marciano would have definitely lost. A big heart can take you only so far.
Lots of matches from the postwar era and before can be seen on YouTube. Viewing them can only increase one's admiration for men like Mickey Walker, Archie Moore, Harry Greb, Benny Leonard, and many more. And no one knows more about the history of boxing than Mike Tyson. What a pleasure it would be to hear Mike speak about that! I know he has great admiration for Battling Nelson, although (or maybe because) Battling Nelson did lose 30 fights.
Ali became a great fighter and destroyed himself in the process. But I find it hard to listen to people rhapsodize about Ali when they don't really know anything else about the sport. The same thing happens regarding Secretariat. Citizen Joe is aware of Secretariat's dominant victory in the Belmont race. But Joe doesn't lament the fact that Secretariat was never tested beyond his third year. I think Secretariat only ran against older horses twice, and lost once. Not sure about that. Citation, in contrast, ran through age five. But the greatest horses were the geldings who had to keep running until they could hardly walk: Kelso, John Henry, Forego.
Blah, blah. It's impossible to make a "safe" football helmet. Baseball is the best invention America has produced. The baseball rule book is a stunningly great piece of writing. If a foul ball lodges in the catcher's mask, is it considered a catch? Jimmy Breslin's bio of Damon Runyon is a masterpiece. Blah, blah. Hank Stram is a badly underrated pro football coach. Bobby Fischer is in a category by himself but I more admire Michael Tal. Ultra-distance runner Pam Reed is the toughest athlete on Earth. The late Alex Karras went to Emerson High School in Gary IN. Blah blah. Football players with unique names include Cosmo Iacavazzi (Princeton), Elvis Peacock (Oklahoma), and Joe Don Looney (Oklahoma). Blah, blah, blah.
Here's a funny video of Hank Stram coaching the KC Chiefs. The coach knew he was wearing a microphone but the players did not. They couldn't understand why he was acting like he had ants in his pants.
Red Smith would never have predicted that the illustrious Library of America would collect the columns he typed on short deadlines for the New York Herald Tribune, publish them lovingly in the new book American Pastimes, and dub him "America's greatest sportswriter." The involvement of the Library of America -- which has published two volumes by A. J. Liebling, including The Sweet Science, his masterly book on boxing -- reflects the growing recognition of sportswriting as a craft and Smith's elevated standing in the scribes' fraternity.
Smith sat in the press box and, in his phrase, "opened a vein" when it came time to stare at the typewriter. Barely minutes had gone by since Bobby Thomson won the 1951 pennant for the Giants ("Reality has strangled invention"). Or Rocky Marciano knocked out Jersey Joe Walcott (left) or Archie Moore (Rocky threw "a left that made him curtsy like a convent girl"). Or Secretariat pulled away from the field at Belmont on June 9, 1973 ("It seems a little greedy to win by thirty-one lengths," the horse's owner said). Twenty years earlier, when the Yankees beat the Dodgers for their fifth World Championship in a row, Smith wrote a column that in the new book bears this title, a pull quote from the piece: "Like Rooting for U. S Steel." Reading that, I wondered whether the Godfather auteurs remembered this line about the New York Yankees and their fans when they had mob boss Hyman Roth say "Michael, we're bigger than U. S. Steel."
It has been a long time since U. S. Steel was the measure of power, size, and importance. American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith, edited by Daniel Okrent, comes from that time as remote from us now and as filled with nostalgic glamour as the early seasons of Mad Men. You could, if you were a lazier columnist than Smith, call it the golden age of American sport; certainly it might have seemed that way to a lad in Washington Heights spoiled by having three major league teams within subway distance, not to mention the football Giants with glamour boy Frank Gifford, a triple threat in the backfield. Joe DiMaggio (pictured at right, with wife) patrolled center field for the Yankees, and when he stepped down, Mickey Mantle came along to take his place. Willie Mays played center for the Giants, who, with Leo Durocher at the helm ("a controversial guy, and that may be the the understatement of the decade"), won an unlikely four-game World Series sweep of the heavily favored Cleveland Indians in 1954. Sugar Ray Robinson, often called the best "pound for pound" fighter in any weight class, performed regularly at the Garden. Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside, made Army a college football powerhouse up at West Point, fifty-five miles north of the city limits. Between 1949 and 1960, Casey Stengel managed the Bronx Bombers to ten pennants in twelve years. In 1947, Branch Rickey ("the greatest of all double-talk monologists") put a Brooklyn Dodger uniform on Jackie Robinson and revolutionized the national pastime.
Red Smith made an art of deadline sportwriting. He was especially handy with a simile. When Sugar Ray, past his prime, fought Carmen Basilio in 1958, Smith conjectures: "Maybe, like an aging shortstop, he can no longer go to his right." Or consider these sentences from his piece about the fabled 1947 World Series game in which the Dodgers' Cookie Lavagetto ruined the Yankees' Floyd Bevens's no-hit bid with a bottom-of-the-ninth game-winning two-out double. "In the third [inning] Johnny Lindell caught Jackie Robinson's foul fly like Doc Blanchard hitting the Notre Dame line and came to his feet unbruised. In the fourth Joe DiMaggio caught Gene Hermanski's monstrous drive like a well-fed banquet guest picking his teeth." In the same game, right-fielder Tommy Henrich took a hit away from Hermanski: "Henrich backed against the board and leaped either four or fourteen feet into the air. He stayed aloft so long he looked like an empty uniform hanging in its locker. When he came down he had the ball."
To write for a newspaper requires a strict brevity of means. It takes artistry to write in short paragraphs, as in this one about Brooklyn southpaw Carl Erskine, hero of game five of the 1952 World Series: "Erskine is an agreeable young man with good habits and an equally good overhand cure. He does not drink, does not smoke, and does not choke in the clutch. On out-of-town business trips, while his playmates sit in the hotel lobby waiting for somebody to discard a newspaper, he visits art museums." There is wit in Smith's parallel structures and word choices -- playmates! -- but what I like most here is this glimpse into road-trip life, circa 1952.
An enthusiast at the core, Smith has his sour moments. He is down on Jersey Joe Walcott (for being old) and Ted Williams (for spitting at fans and press in August 1956). Williams's "moist expression of contempt" was "bush," Smith writes, though he graciously does his best nevertheless "to understand and be patient with this painfully introverted, oddly immature thirty-year-old veteran of two wars."
Like every other writer, Smith is far from infallible. He writes off Muhammad Ali too fast after Joe Frazier beat him at the Garden in March 1971: "If they fought a dozen times, Joe Frazier would whip Muhammad Ali a dozen times. And it would get easier as they went along." The columnist is right to voice a city's anger and anguish when its beloved National League teams de-camped for the West Coast at the end of the 1957 season. Their departure from New York "is an unrelieved calamity, a grievous loss to the city and to baseball, a shattering blow to the prestige of the National League, an indictment of the men operating the clubs and the men governing the city." Two years later, a certain amount of revisionism has set in. Baseball's West Coast expansion "was a development long overdue and greatly to be desired, but effected in an atmosphere of deceitful contriving which left the game wearing the dollar sign like a brand."
American Pastimes has been edited, and is introduced, with exemplary intelligence by Daniel Okrent. Chapter heading are wonderful. What had been "Nice Guys Finish" -- the piece about the exodus of the Dodgers and Giants to the Pacific Coast -- now sports the title "East Goes West and League Goes South." There is one error, no doubt a simple oversight, that should be fixed in the next printing. In an October 1966 piece recollecting Fridays in previous decades at Madison Square Garden, Smith would never have referred to "Rocky Marciano's three wars with Tony Zale." It was a competely different Rocky, Graziano, the middleweight, who did battle with Zale. I make a point of it because Rocky Graziano was the first prize-fighter to take my fancy: I was eight years old and saw "Somebody Up There Likes Me" with my parents and sisters at a drive-in movie. Paul Newman played Graziano.
The sportswriter's occupational risk is hyperbole, and Smith is not exempt. Of Whirlaway, winner of racing's Triple Crown the 1941, Smith writes, the colt "was Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Bill Tilden, Bobby Jones -- not just a champion but. . ." -- you finish the sentence. The remarkable thing is how few lapses there are in such a long career.
Like A. J. Liebling, Red Smith writes with particular verve about Marciano. The undefeated heavyweight champion was "victorious, invincible, indestructible." But it is DiMaggio who best fits Smith's idea of the heroic athlete, the demigod who does everything with majesty and grace -- and is therefore the proper model for a prose stylist, doing his job with consistency and skill and without ostentation or temperament. Joltin' Joe's exploits lubricated the Red Smith simile machine. In a game against the Red Sox in 1950, Bobby Doerr hit what looked to be a sure double when "Joe raced in on a long angle to his left, thrust out his glove, palm up like a landlord taking a payoff under the table."
When DiMaggio retired in October 1951, "the simple, flat fact [is] that the greatest ballplayer of our day and one of the greatest of any day quit baseball yesterday." In the last column Smith ever wrote, dated January 11, 1982, he admits he is sometimes prone to disappointment with the current crop of ballplayers. But he fights it off. "I told myself not to worry," he writes. And then comes this, his last sentence: "Some day there would be another Joe DiMaggio."
-- David Lehman
A woman’s egg bears an astonishing resemblance to that woman’s character.
Both sperm and egg are tiny. The sperm is very long and totally single-minded. The egg expresses ennui and harmony in one stroke. Its shape is nearly that of a sphere.
Not all sperm are like a man’s. The sperm of a crab, and even more so that of a crayfish, resemble the corolla of a flower. The supple, radiant arms seem to be reaching out not to a female but to heaven.
Given the regularity of crab reproduction, you might well suppose that these decapod crustaceans know what they’re doing.
In fact, we know nothing about the heaven of the crab, although there are people who catch crabs and dangle them by the tentacles, the better to observe them. We know even less about the heaven of the sperm of the crab.
-- Henri Michaux, “Le Ciel du Spermatozoide” (trans. David Lehman)
Reprinted from Conduit
In 1965, the scout watched Seaver pitch for USC and wrote, "This boy showed a real good fast ball with good life … boy has plenty of desire to pitch and wants to beat you." The scout was Tom Lasorda, the future Hall of Fame manager who was, at the time, best known as a Dodger lifer, a southpaw pitcher who had come up with Koufax but failed to stick to the major league club.
Here is Bill Zinser's scouting report on Koufax from May 15, 1954. -- DL
The diehard poet sees a poem in everything. The most seemingly unpoetic experience still offers a story through her lens. Who can say exactly why the poet’s brain works this way?
In some cases, it is an organizing factor. In others, it is a mechanism of defense or cathartic process. At times we construct narratives to protect ourselves from what is raw, painful or inexplicable. We put language onto what we cannot understand, we grapple for a semblance of sense or beauty. Words protect us. That’s how we can write poems about trauma, for example, how the most unimaginable pain can become poetic.
What about distinctly “unpoetic” experiences of the everyday? Poems exist on the most mundane of subjects. Nothing is mundane in the hands of the skilled poet or, rather, the mundane becomes extraordinary in that it is mundane.
But how much of life does the poet approach, not with the images or pieces of a poem, but with the actual poetic process itself?
Everything I do seems to fall into the same general interest areas, requiring use of similar parts of the brain—I write and research and write some more; I curate a reading series for poets; I make music—with the notable exception of playing soccer. I like to think language is a realm in which I have some degree of mastery and playing music seems to exercise the brain in many of the same ways. Where does soccer fit in, besides making me—ideally—a more well-rounded person?
While I enjoy the game immensely, I am all but incompetent on the soccer field. At the risk of constructing a false dichotomy, I’ve always considered myself more intellectually-inclined than athletically. Of course the two need not be mutually exclusive; indeed perhaps I can fuse the disparate pieces of my life and say it is possible to see the sport of soccer—or any sport for that matter—as a poetic experience.
For skilled players, there is a great deal of, well, skill to playing soccer. There is foresight and strategy. You make predictions, take gambles and develop systems of spoken and unspoken communication with teammates. You get better by practicing and watching the masters (rarely in life, however, is that not the case).
There’s a certain art to the balance of the game. You must learn to read your opponent, to think ahead and visualize. So much of the game is lived abstractly, in one’s head, before any play is made. A play takes a moment, while visualization and strategy last all match—even all season. Soccer involves immense amounts of running and passing and work, punctuated by small, intense bursts and climaxes as when a player takes a shot.
How similar all this sounds to the poetic process. A great deal of work goes into crafting a poem. There are hours upon unseen hours of toiling for the little bit that's ultimately displayed. To begin to understand that work, you must read between the lines, unfold and dismantle the finished product.
All poetry is also a conversation, just like soccer, though neither is a conversation in the most traditional sense. Poets converse with their contemporaries and their predecessors, while soccer players converse with their teammates and their opponents. They get to know each other intimately. As my sports fanatic uncle has always preached: “Everything you need to know in life, you learn on the soccer field.”
There’s certainly rhythm and repetition to soccer, as with poetry, but there is also a lot that is unpredictable and beyond our control. Despite certain limiting repetition of a soccer game, there are infinite possible outcomes.
In poetry as in play, we can control what we do but we cannot necessarily control the consequence. We cannot control how a game will unfold just as we cannot control how a poem will unfold—what will it become once it’s left to others’ interpretations?
Alissa Fleck is a freelance writer whose work has appeared on Bitch, Truthout and Narrative.ly and in the Huffington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and more. She writes a weekly literary column for NY Press.
This is perhaps my favorite piece of conceptual writing.
Over the weekend I found myself in the judges' room for a high school Speech & Debate final (true story!). I asked one of the English teachers there whether poetry was a hard sell to her students, thinking I suppose of the oft-stated consensus that of all the genres poetry's the most resistant, the least popular, the swath of the textbook one rushes past to get to the plotty parts. "Not at all," she said, whether because they thrive on its intensity or simply through their tech- & hip-hop-enabled comfort with compression and linguistic multifariousness. “The problem is novels. It’s very hard to convince them that reading anything lengthy is worthwhile.”
What the villagers call that empty space of weeds, that grove or knoll where my mother was baptized. Not __________, but ___________.
Not церква but коcтьол, kościół, the word in the banished tongue.
Shibboleth? [can’t hear you.]
Ear of corn? [can’t make out the word.]
She coughs. The body’s own water pools in the crevice of her clavicle. The wind ripples the lake so shallow now that no fish can winter there.
(I are my ownenemymemory)
(The Unmemntioable, Erin Moure, House of Anansi, 2012)
In addition to writing some of the most singular books of poetry of the last decade (2002’s O Cidadán, 2009’s Expeditions of a Chimaera with Oana Avasilichioaei, 2010’s O Resplandor, among others), Moure has published translations of the equally uncategorizable Galician poet Chus Pato, as well as a brilliant translation/reimagination of O Guardador de Rebanhos by Fernando Pessoa, or by his heteronym Alberto Caeiro. Pessoa famously recalibrated the task of the poet as the creation of personae rather than poems, conjuring the myriad personalities who then undertook the labor of drafting the writings associated with his name.
Moure gives the adventure of Pessoan heteronymity a political and sociolinguistic spin; as the above passage suggests, her work crosses and recrosses geographic and linguistic boundaries as it details its author’s encounters with real and imagined figures and events. Pato figures tangentially as a correspondent, while more central is the elusive Elisa Sampedrin, an authorial alter ego who appeared previously in O Resplandor. Sampedrin reflects upon Moure as Moure reflects upon the dark history that sent her own mother from the Ukraine to Canada in the first half of the last century.
Naturally enough, both Moure’s champions and her detractors tend to frame her work in relation to the post-structuralist theory that has informed avant-garde writing for almost two generations now. One will encounter citations of Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Agamben in her writing, and the passage above with its fragmentation and erasures invites assimilation to the familiar gestures of language and post-language writing.
But the heteronym is both an anticipation of and a deviation from the vertiginous deconstructions of later theory. Pessoa’s writings offer us a vision of identity plural and dispersed, circulating through the linguistic productions of a system of personae. But through imaginative investment the counterfeit becomes real, accruing an undeniable particularity. In Moure’s work, as well, the destabilization of identities and unsettling of comfortable reading habits goes hand-in-hand with the production of new and exhilarating reading possibilities, generated out of the incessant layering of linguistic strata, and thereby new existential possibilities. As Johanna Skibsrud puts it in an unusually perceptive reading of Moure, “hers is not an interest in language as a fact in itself..equally her intention is not to arrive at a sense of greater senselessness. Moure’s poetry is instead interested precisely in the ‘explosivity across membranes’ that E.S. represents in The Unmemntioable.”
What Moure’s work seems to call out for (and what Skibsrud’s reading to some degree attains) is a criticism that can trace out its processes of destabilization and reconfiguration. In particular, her writing manifests a kind of self-consciousness often associated with the “metafictional,” but which is intensified and qualitatively altered through the medium of lyric, as well as via her text’s multilingual slippages. So much of contemporary writing is sick with knowingness; Moure’s signal achievement is to parry the inescapable reflexivity of her poetry with a countervailing urge to unknowing.
This fall, Wave Books will publish the collection Poems (1962-1997) by Robert Lax, which I edited. Among other pieces, the book contains the entirety of Lax’s 1962 collection New Poems, which I consider one of the underread gems of 20th-century American poetry. Here’s one poem from that collection:
How do you read a poem like this? How do you know when you’re finished with it?
One’s inner cynic might answer that it’s pretty easy to read, and even easier to be finished with. (Criticism often seems to launch from the premise that the poem is guilty until proven innocent, as though never being taken in is the highest virtue.)
“My kid could do that,” is the old and shamelessly philistine way of attacking art that dispenses with traditional conventions; variations on it persist in museums and journals to this day. To which Lax’s longtime friend Ad Reinhardt would respond, “Your kid must be a genius!” & he or she probably is.
Really, imagine it.
The loveliest bit of this story is the line that when everything in academia is automated, it’ll free faculty up “for other tasks.”
Light construction projects? Armed security? Fracking the campus subsurface?
At the Dodgers training camp this week in Glendale, Arizona, Mr. Koufax conferred with Dodger coaches and players, Now if the baseball Dodgers were the basketball Knicks (who are adding Kenyon Martin to an already impressive lineup of over-the-hill greats), they'd probably be offering a contract to the southpaw, 77, who, to help justify the analogy, played basketball in college. As a Dodger pitcher he won the Cy Young Award three times and was NL MVP in 1963. And he pitched the team to two world championships. And he refused to pitch game one of the 1965 World Series against the Twins because the date fell on Yom Kippur. Here he is, giving the fans something to smile about. -- DL
As the 2013 Super Bowl approaches, it's time to watch Vince Lombardi give a ten minute lecture on his favorite football play. If you're like me, you prefer to skip the introductory content that encumbers many Youtube clips, so just begin watching at 1:08. You'll enjoy seeing Lombardi start to go crazy as his lecture continues. And this is actually just the first of several Youtube lectures by Lombardi on the same play.
Along similar lines, here's an interview with Jim Ringo. He played center on Lombardi's Green Bay Packer team until Lombardi got rid of him because he wanted more money. Ringo looks like George Washington in this video and seems very composed, but he had to be an extremely aggressive player in order to make up for his lack of size. He was also a fervent anti-communist.
This evening I was reading this post on The Hairpin, all about "low-effort toddler games" like "Do You Like My Hat?" and "Hide Things in Your Clothes," and it reminded me of a passage from the children's book Pinky Pye, wherein a cat types up a list of suggested games:
The very clever cat then goes on to explain more complicated games, which you might enjoy reading (beginning on page 118).
And this led me to thinking of all the games I've played with poet friends, which now I will tell you how to play, in case you find yourself with guests or selves to entertain this weekend.
1. Game of First Lines
This is just like Balderdash, only instead of inventing definitions for obscure words, you invent first lines for titles. Pull a literary journal off the shelf, open to the first poem, read the title aloud, and then have your friends write down a convincing option for a first line, while you write down the actual one. Gather them all together, read them out loud, and have everyone guess which is real. Points to anyone who guesses right, or whose line manages to fool someone. Or don't keep track of points. Then pass the journal to the next person, so you get a chance to invent.
2. Game of Following the Rules of Vasko Popa's Game Poems
I just made this up, but I think it would end in tears. Here is how you play "Seducer"
One caresses the leg of a chair
Until the chair moves
And motions him coyly with her leg
Another kisses the keyhole
Keeps kissing it and how
Until the keyhole returns the kiss
A third one stands to the side
Watches the other two
And shakes and shakes his head
Until his head drops off
3. Game of Not Listening
When you are stuck in an audience listening to someone who is dull or going on for too long, write down words and phrases she says, in order, but very selectively, so that by the time she finishes you have a much better speech she could have made had she only known how to edit herself. Extra points if you arrange her own words into an entirely different subject.
4. Game of Constant Similes
Pretend that every time someone says "like" as filler (of the "um" variety) he is embarking on making a simile it is your job to understand.
5. Game of Stacking Books
This game I borrowed from Matthea Harvey, who borrowed it from the artist Nina Katchadourian. Go to a place full of books. Find titles you'd like to arrange into a poem. Stack them in an order that pleases you. Depending on whether or not you think the place is trying to keep the books in a different order, you might consider leaving them there for someone to discover. Or take a picture.
6. Game of "Life of Game"
Listen to Loren Goodman.
7. Game of Thinking of Something
Think of something. Tell your friends you are thinking of something. See if they can guess what it is. If you are not with friends, try just thinking of something.
Those are all of the games I know. I'm lying. Those are half of them, but I am trying to raise my level of mysteriousness, which is part of a game I'm not telling you about.
Today I finished updating jubilat.org with content from the new issue--our twenty-second. Much of the process is a little mundane, like figuring out (with my extremely limited html skills) how to best represent a poem's irregular form. It's a puzzle, but not an especially artistic one.
On the other hand, once all that formatting's complete, I get to move on to my favorite part of making a new issue: determining how to index the poems. We do have an index of contributors' names, but the "index of ideas" is where I get excited. Might I associate a poem with already-existing terms like meat or money? Or does the poem demand the addition of new terms to the index? While I was working today I realized that--to my great surprise--ghosts had not yet made it onto the list. It took this particular group of haunted poems to push the word forward in my consciousness.
It's a strange way to read, moving my eyes over the poems and back into my memory through some alternate dimension. If I typically read a poem with my eyes on the poem, reading to index lets me read through them. It's like discovering an elevator in the middle of an ice skating rink. And down I go.
I'm an irresponsible indexer. I don't pretend to be complete or consistent. Nor do the other index-makers I admire. The other day, reading the final chapter of Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading, I ran into this passage, which describes the index of the book Manguel says he hasn't written, but would like to read--titled The History of Reading:
I know it possesses a copious and curious index which will give me intense delight, with headings such as (I fall by chance on the letter T) Tantalus for readers, Tarzan's library, Tearing pages, Toes (reading with), Tolstoy's canon, Tombstones, Torment by recitation, Tortoise (see Shells and animal skins), Touching books, Touchstone and censorship, Transmigration of readers' souls (see Lending books).
I rushed to the actual index of A History, and felt first disappointment, then a kind of thrill to see that no such terms were to be found. In their place? Very useful and proper headings: Torah, translation, troubadour. This straightforward collection meant that I could invent my own copious and curious index for the rest of the alphabet. It was not limited by actually existing; it was the largest index in the world.
At times, for fun and self-instruction, I've indexed my own poems, taking a cue from my friend Zachary Schomburg (hi Zach), who has included an index in all three of his books, helping readers notice the presence of Blood in the trees, Bravery, and Baseball (see also Sports). Baseball appears, by the way, in the jubilat index as well.
Not yet have I attempted the poem as index, but the late Paul Violi did. More than attempted! He recognized that an index is a tremendously revealing form: an imperfect x-ray of a book's soul. (Or sometimes an autobiographer's.)
Do you have a favorite index? Don't say Harper's! I really do want to know.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.