Archive for the 'Literature' Category

Cipher Poem of the Day: 1995-2131

Using images from the Pitchrs & Poets Tumblr as a creative launching point, our resident Imagineer Dylan Little has put together a series of cipher poems. Can you guess the ballplayer below, as described using the literary tools of the $ubconscious$. (Click the link at the end for the solution.)

You can follow Dylan on Twitter: @orangehunchback.

Billy will never be
as bald as me.
I’d rather party
with an ’82 Eddie
Murray. If little bro
penned a book
it’d be called Billy:
the Pervert Who Holds The All-Time Record For Most Farts In His Brother’s Pool.

solution

On Narratives and Realignment

Editor’s Note: We are pleased to bring you Patrick Dubuque’s first post as this summer’s Bill Spaceman Lee Visiting Professor for Baseball Exploration. Please enjoy:

“The broken flower drooped over Ben’s fist and his eyes were empty and blue and serene again as cornice and façade flowed smoothly once more from left to right, post and tree, window and doorway and signboard each in its ordered place.”

-William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

The words “The End” don’t appear in Faulkner’s masterpiece, because the story doesn’t end; it just stops.  In the postmodern literary arena, the traditional story arc has fallen out of favor, replaced by an unflinching, gritty examination of life as is.  Climaxes and conclusions are left for the situational comedy, the summer blockbuster and the Dan Brown spiritual thriller.  Instead, we get the repeating signboards, and the vantage toward the horizon, with the misery of human existence as it disappears and resurfaces ad infinitum.

Baseball is in no way postmodern.  This week, however, a few of its storytellers are modeling with the hypothetical, toying with the concept of realignment.  Authors and readers alike strain to envision a world in which the Mariners play the Padres in late September, as opposed to July, or a future where Carlos Lee is a designated hitter rather than a designated hitter who happens to take the field every inning.  The whole conversation is wonderful off-season banter, oddly timed in its arrival in early June.  Rob Neyer and Al Yellon over at SB Nation present their cases for and against admirably.  My response is to reprint the well-worn cartoon that made the baseball blog rounds several weeks ago:

The important part of the comic (for my purposes) is not the seeming randomness from which the narrative is derived: The Return of the Native is a story essentially extracted from the meteorological effects on British topography, breaded with crumbs of angst.  Instead, what’s worth discussing is the creation of those narratives, a goal that the sport certainly aims to accomplish.  Essentially, baseball is driven by two very separate forces: the desire to have the greatest team crowned as champions, and the desire to have an interesting, dramatic month of playoff baseball.

As fans, we’ve inured ourselves to the fact that the current division and playoff formats are an uneasy alliance between excitement and realism.  Unlike the other major sports (except perhaps basketball), the qualities that reflect a good regular season baseball team do not necessarily lend themselves to the playoffs, where fourth starters are nearly useless and losing four out of seven games is entirely reasonable for a team that lost a third of them up to that point.  Any plan to expand the playoffs simply introduces more luck into the formula for deciding champions, and reduces the importance of the regular season.

What this phenomenon lacks in purity, however, it makes up for in narrative.  A realignment that introduces more teams also provides more underdogs, more parity, and more seventh games.  It’s democracy, in all the best and worst senses of the word.  It provides the hope for victory by diluting that victory, forgetting that too many memorable moments make each of them equally unmemorable.

So we have a hypothetical system designed to add excitement to every season, but people aren’t fans of seasons; they’re fans of teams.  A team’s narrative isn’t meant to be a trifling, six-month one-act play.  It’s a Michenerian epic, spanning years and generations.  Success should come from hard work and skill, the culmination of sweat and suffering and disaster.  So too should tragedy.  It needs its fatal flaw, its catharsis.  To have these results come at the hands of a fluke, a mindless twist of fate, is to render the whole exercise arbitrary, and reduce the work back into a string of random numbers.

Benjy, one of the few Faulkner characters to escape a novel with contentment intact, does so by keeping his gaze on the horizon.  In baseball, this is the meaningless weekday afternoon game in August, the second division teams playing for pride.  It’s baseball for its own sake, just as the existentialists gave up on winning and championed life for the sake of life.

Bill James, Sigh


Bill James writes an interesting but extremely flawed article about why we’re so good at developing baseball players, but so lousy at developing writers in Slate. Since the piece is called “Shakespeare and Verlander,” and our site is called Pitchers & Poets, I feel obligated to respond. I’ll focus on this quotation:

The average city the size of Topeka produces a major league player every 10 or 15 years. If we did the same things for young writers, every city would produce a Shakespeare or a Dickens or at least a Graham Greene every 10 or 15 years. Instead, we tell the young writers that they should work on their craft for 20 or 25 years, get to be really, really good—among the best in the world—and then we’ll give them a little bit of recognition.

1. It takes exactly one writer to create a great novel, poem, story, play, essay. It takes at least 18 baseball players to play a single baseball game. The demand is different because it requires more baseball players to be entertained than it requires writers.

2. It takes about three hours to watch a baseball game. It takes a dozen to read a novel.

3. Bill James says that if we did the same things to develop and appreciate writers and baseball players, a Shakespeare or Dickens or at least a Graham Greene would emerge from every mid-sized to small American city every decade or two. I think he fails to realize that a fair amount of people consider Graham Greene the greatest novelist of the 20th century. I’m about to finish “The Heart of the Matter.” If the entire world produced a Graham Greene every ten or fifteen years, I think we’d be in good shape. This is a guess, but as it stands now, Topeka probably does produce a crappy but published novelist or two — think the Alex Cora of novelists — every ten or fifteen years.

I think James also fails to realize — or at least fails to note — that there’s a massive inherent difference between writing novels and playing professional baseball. He’s right that they both require a great deal of natural ability and an even greater amount of practice. An old poetry professor of mine would always say that writing is both an art and a craft. Baseball is at best a craft with stunning aesthetic appeal. As much as we like to expound on this blog and assign literary meaning to ballplayers and ballgames, pitching is not art in the same sense that writing a novel is art. It’s more like chess. Pitchers don’t create new universes when they step out on the mound.

I’ll use Philip Roth. When his autobiographical character Alexander Portnoy dreams of being a centerfielder: “oh to be a centerfielder, a center fielder and nothing more,” he’s dreaming about the simplicity of playing center field — the physicality, the freedom, the distance from all of the insecurities and emotional machinations of the novelist. This isn’t to say that playing center fielder is a less worthy activity, it’s just not the same as writing literature.

4. His argument that Topeka is the size of Shakespeare’s London and therefore should be producing the same quality and quantity of literary output is absurd because a.) writers don’t flock to Topeka as a cultural capital. b.) Topeka has to compete with New York and LA and even Wichita when it comes to producing writers while London was the largest, most important city around. c.) There’s a very good poet named Eric McHenry from Topeka. He writes about it a fair amount. Also, as my friend Steve just pointed out, Gwendolyn Brooks was from Topeka

I’ll stop here. I’ve come to really appreciate Bill James more in the last year. He’s a brilliant thinker and brilliant writer. But this is the kind of pop-science crap that Malcom Gladwell would be reamed for if it appeared under his name. The arguments aren’t fleshed out. If you want to say that we should be valuing our writers more as a society, that’s one thing. (And James does make some good points about the dwindling demand for modern classics because the cannon isn’t really getting smaller.) But to say that Topeka should be producing a Dickens every decade because it produces a major league ballplayer? That’s just lazy.

(Also: Long Live Unofficial Royals Week!)

Invisible Threads

Through the fifteenth century, the people of the Thrace used the phrase, “keeping Hosmer’s contacts away” as an idiom meaning “good luck.”

The quotation above comes from the impressive “A Paragraph About Eric Hosmer Written in the Style of The Golden Bough” at Royals Review, a stylistic exploration of the rituals that define the spiritual life of the typical Royals fan.

I once read the first sixty pages of The Golden Bough. While the work is entrancing, and sort of hypnotically cumulative in its effect, and as deft at building apparent spiritual lineages as Chuck Klosterman when he crafts his pop cultural hierarchies today, I was ultimately stymied by that very density–which read, at times, like a diabtribe from a Monster® energy drink-fueled caller to Coast to Coast AM–and the highly problematic debasement of entire groups of normal human beings to which Will, the author of the very clever and amusing post, alludes.

The appeal of The Golden Bough is its unapologetic conviction that there are threads that connect societies and cultures across time and geography, that there are traits that we share because we are the same. This conviction drives Pitchers & Poets, too, that these invisible threads a) exist and b) are worth stringing out as far as they will go.

Eric Hosmer, The Golden Boy

The Power and Danger of Restraint

As of late this blog has been an Alex Belth and FreeDarko appreciation space. That will continue below. Alex wrote a  post on the Banter called “The Power and Beauty of Restraint.” He takes as his starting point a blog post by Esquire’s Chris Jones. Because I cannot resist a craft discussion, in I jump.

Jones:

We’re taught to believe that words have a value, a power, a weight. Logically, then, the more words, the better the sentence or paragraph or story. But writing isn’t always a logical exercise. Sometimes—most of the time—it’s about things that are harder to measure.

Belth:

Man, you’ve got to be ruthless to murder your darlings. It is nothing short of inspiring when the great talents have the conviction to do just that.

The whole essay is worth a read. Glenn Stout brings up poetry: “it not only teaches tangible things like economy, sound and rhythm, but it also teaches that the negative space in writing.” Belth himself brings up painting.

These are much better venues than sports writing to immediately appreciate the value of economy. I had a poetry professor in college named Richard Kenney. He’s a damn fine poet, and one of the best teachers I’ve ever known. If you had a problem – as Belth puts it – murdering your own darlings, then Rick did not. He dismissed stray words and sentences with an executioner’s seething glee.

But it was all for a purpose. The only poems he killed were mercy killings. Rick pruned the excess. He questioned the purpose. He demanded the most. He made us memorize Auden and Keats and Rilke. The first Rilke poem I read with him, “The Legendary Torso of Apollo” serves as an apt metaphor here. It’s a short poem about a statue that over the centuries somehow lost its head. But its decapitated state only serves to strengthen the remaining torso. Apollo’s head is more powerful in absence:

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Poetry does not get more economic than that last line: “You must change your life.” There is little economy in what I’m doing right now, which is blatantly appreciating economy. But this is a blog, and it’s my blog, and I have the right. So I continue with Belth’s visual example.

I’m a big fan of the painter Caravaggio and the technique of chiaroscuro which employs stark light/dark contrasts. Caravaggio’s paintings use the negative space, the darkness, the way that great writers can use the space between words and sentences. You can also see this technique in film – especially with a lot of noir stuff. Think about the negative spaces onscreen next time you watch “The Godfather.” Certain scenes resonate visually in almost the same way works by a totally disparate talent like Ernest Hemingway resonate.

I end with Hemingway here because to many people he is an icon in word economy. His story “Hills Like White Elephants” is assigned in college English classes for the clever way it approaches a subject without ever broaching it. His books are easy to read and manage to say a great deal in a small space. Fortunately and unfortunately, his iceberg theory holds up as a modus operandi for students in fiction writing workshops everywhere.

Jones, in his blog post, writes that “we are taught to believe that words have a value, a power, a weight.” I was lucky. I was taught by my father that for this very reason, words are to be dispensed with great care. If you can’t say something succinctly, don’t say it at all. Or as Ted reminds me sometimes when I send him drafts of long essays, “try harder.”

In this vein, we must all be careful not to use economy as a crutch. I know I have a tendency to do this. Instead of pushing an idea further, to the brink of collapse, I fall back on minimalism. The less you say, the less you are responsible for. This has mostly been an appreciation for Belth’s “power and beauty of restraint.” But I hope it can also be a warning to myself and to others: don’t use restraint as a tool for cheating. And don’t use it for gimmickry either.

Hemingway approaches gimmickry with “Hills Like White Elephants.” But he gave this advice as well as anybody could have. And his iceberg remains the apt metaphor:

If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water.

So Much Depends

One of my favorite classroom activities revolves around a little sixteen word poem by William Carlos Williams. The Red Wheelbarrow is a classic, rightfully famous for so many reasons, not the least of which how it hones in from the broadest of openings to build a specific and detailed image in a single sentence.

The activity is this. I ask students to write a sentence beginning with the words “so much depends.” It’s that simple. If I’m in a science class, I might add the addendum that the sentence should be about science, or about the environment. If I’m in a literature or poetry class, on the other hand, I might ask students to focus on themselves, or I might just leave it open.

The results are often fascinating. I’ve seen simple, but elegant phrases like “so much depends on aloha,” or the more concrete “so much depends upon a community working together.” Perhaps the greatest lesson, for me as a teacher, is how much depends on context, on how much the immediate environment dictates and shapes what students produce.

Strangely enough, though I frequently ask students to engage in this exercise, I rarely do it myself. During the recently completed playoffs, however, I’ve been thinking about how much little things alter a short series, and how fitting The Red Wheelbarrow’s opening line is to a team trying to win a championship. Or, perhaps more importantly, how fitting that line is to a fan watching.

With that in mind, I want to offer a few observations of my own, but I also would love to hear from anyone else. How does your “so much depends” end?

So much depends upon a long fly ball, deep to left, beyond an outstretched glove.

So much depends upon an aging Columbian shortstop, swinging his hardest one last time.

So much depends upon the number and wiggle of a catcher’s fingers.

So much depends upon a Yankee captain’s dollars and pinstripes.

So much depends upon out three.

So much depends upon a series lead with your ace on the hill.

So much depends, but so little seems to matter, when your home team watches instead of plays.

The All-Meteorological Team via EFQ

The All-Meteorological Team was published in Elysian Fields Quarterly, the baseball journal whose publishing status remains hazy. Horowitz does a fantastic series of All-Something Teams, of which this is just one.

The All-Meteorologic Team
By Mikhail Horowitz

C – Blimp Hayes
1B – J. T. Snow
2B – Gene Freese
SS – Andy High
3B – Sammy Hale
OF – Curt Flood
OF – Tim Raines
OF – Larry Sheets

RHP
Rich Gale
Dave Frost
Mark Clear
Ken Cloude
Dave Weathers

LHP
Lou Sleater

BENCH
Ernie Gust
Razor Shines

MGR
Bobby Lowe

My PnP honorable mentions include:

Mike “The Human Rain Delay” Hargrove
Dexter Fowler
Coco Crisp
Jeff Clement (okay, that one’s a stretch…)