On Fridays, we here at the Playing Field will feature a guest writer from the better ports around the interwebbings. This week, the great Carson Cistulli brings the proverbial pain with a meditation on bases ball, poems, and one of the ways in which they’re totally unlike.
Without even thinking about it real hard, one could make quite a long list of the ways that poems and baseball games are different, including (but certainly not limited to) the following:
- Only one of them will help you with the ladies (reading a poem).
- Only one of them will get you called gay (strangely enough, also reading a poem).
- It’s common to watch games in groups. This isn’t so with reading poems. (Unless you’re at something called a “poetry reading,” which is actually a form of torture in some countries.)
- You can easily miss part of a baseball game. To miss part a poem is likely the same as missing the whole poem.
- Only one of them will cause world peace (just kidding, neither will do this).
In any case, like I say, there are a number of ways we know that poems and games are different, and most of them are both obvious and — maybe for that reason — uninteresting.
But one actually interesting difference between the two — i.e. poems and baseball games — is the way they provide pleasure to the reader. (For the sake of this discussion, “reader” also applies to one watching a baseball game.) For it’s a fact: while almost every baseball game is at least tolerable, the exact opposite is true of poems, of which many — nay, most — are unbearable.
Even poets believe this to be true. Regard this passage by Kenneth Koch, from his (excellent) poem “My Olivetti Speaks”:
If half the poets in the world stopped writing poetry, there would still be the same amount of poetry.
If ninety-nine percent of the poets in the world stopped writing poetry, there would still be the same amount of poetry. Going beyond ninety-nine percent might limit production.
Koch was, by all accounts, a great poet. He won a Bollingen Prize (which is basically to poetry what the Sporting News Player of the Year Award is to baseball — not the best prize, but still pretty good). He taught at Columbia University for a super long time. He’s generally regarded as a founder of the New York School of poetry. And look: here he’s not only suggesting that some poems are bad, but that absolutely nothing would change if 99 percent of people stopped writing them.
For those who are more visually oriented, I’ve devised a couple of highly sophisticated graphs for your consideration. In the first one, we see that most baseball games deliver a fairly average Joy Factor — that is, while they’re rarely Off the Hook in terms of joy, it’s very rare that joy is entirely absent from a baseball game, either.
In this second graph, for reading poems, we have not the normal kind of distribution, but the bimodal kind — which is to say, the Joy Factor is either at one extreme or the other in poems-reading. The equally sophisticated graph for said activity can be seen here:
So what gives? Why is the Joy Factor while reading a poem subject to such extremes, while a baseball game is mostly even steven?
Answer One is “I don’t know.” Clearly, that’s not interesting, however, so let’s move on. Answer Two is as follows: because poems are only attempting to do one, kinda risky thing — namely, asking the reader to derive joy from language itself. One doesn’t read a poem for information, like to get the weather or news; nor does one read a poem even for the author’s opinion on something. Really, one reads a poems to witness someone (the poet, duh) using language in an unexpected way. One is looking, if it can be said, to be surprised.
Certainly, surprise is the only recourse when reading these lines by Wallace Stevens:
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Or when encountering David Berman’s myriad invented proper nouns, like The Duchess of Night Soccer or the Bureau of Sad Endings.
Or even just the titles from two Sharon Mesmer poems: “Juan Valdez Has a Little Juan Valdez (i.e., Energy Cannon) in His Pants” and “Squid Versus Assclown.” (P.S. Those poems are as amazing as they sound.)
Those are great things. Really great. But, as Koch notes, most poems don’t get there. And when they don’t get there, they fail. For baseball games, on the other hand — well, surprises are okay, but they’re not necessary. In fact, sometimes we watch games because they’re familiar: the same team, with the same players, playing in the same uniforms, with the same broadcasters. We derive pleasure from all these things, too. But it’s a different pleasure than when reading a poem.