Last night, while watching the World Series with my son, I recalled the famous photograph of Marianne Moore throwing a first pitch at Yankee Stadium, and I considered all the allusions to baseball I had seen in poems or essays by poets over the years, some of which are chronicled at one of the Poetry Foundation’s pages devoted to baseball and verse. I also remembered references to baseball as a metaphor for life lessons, including studying poetry, a perspective particularly offered repeatedly by the late poet David Citino, who died of complications from multiple sclerosis during the baseball post-season of 2005.
David Citino’s fondness for baseball could be found in his personal life as an avid fan and little league coach, as well as in his poetry and prose, particularly in a chapter, “I Don’t Care If I Never Get Back,” from his fine book of essays and memoirs, Paperwork (Kent State University Press, 2003), where Citino declares: “Poetry and baseball go way back. Walt Whitman filed what I like to think of as one of the first reports from spring training, in 1846. He happened upon ‘several parties of youngsters playing “base,” a certain game of ball.’ Whitman seems always to speak the truth with both clarity and exuberance. ‘The game of ball,’ he says, ‘is glorious.’”
Citino liked to note the ways baseball seemed to connect generations to one another, as when I watch the World Series with my son, and he enjoyed comparing poetry to baseball: “A poem and a baseball game have many similarities. Both involve skill and rules, talent and tradition, beauty and grace, the use of time and space. Everything matters between the lines.”
In a terrific collection of essays by poets that Citino earlier had edited—The Eye of the Poet: Six Views on the Art and Craft of Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2002), which includes commentary by David Baker, Billy Collins, Yusef Komunyakaa, Maxine Kumin, Carol Muske, and Ann Townsend—Citino as well presented a piece he’d written with advice for beginning poets on obtaining knowledge about the art of poetry, “Tell Me How It Was in the Old Days: In Search of the Poet.” In the opening of his essay, Citino reminisces about a situation he also would repeat in Paperwork, a series of events that began when he’d been a fifth-grader wanting to discover how to pitch well and seeking out advice of an older kid at school:
I went to a ninth-grader to learn how to throw a curve ball. He showed me. “You grip the seams. You snap your wrist down, as if you held a match a second too long.” Then one day the coach of my little league team, with even more wisdom won from age, told me not to throw a curve at all until I reached sixteen and started to get my grown-up body, or I’d do irreparable damage to my elbow. (Perhaps there are moves, twists, and velocities that younger poets should wait to try. I need to investigate this further.)
Years later, an opposing coach, after his team had knocked me around quite smartly, my best pitches whizzing back past my ears, told me that he had alerted his team to the fact that, whenever I threw the curve, I tipped my hand by sticking out my tongue a little, as if I were concentrating.
“Son,” he said to me, “you have to learn, when you throw the bender, to keep your damn tongue in your mouth.”
Live and learn. I hadn’t known that the art is to hide the art. A pitcher or poet needs (I hope this doesn’t mix the metaphor too violently) a poker face, so as not to announce to the batter or reader his or her intentions. I’ve never forgotten this kindness extended to an enemy—nor have I forgotten the importance to the poet of having a reader with a good eye and ear. Those paunchy, grizzled men sitting in dugouts are there for a reason. Those poets—women and men—sitting on benches back in the mists of time also are there for a reason. It’s all about coaching and being able to take constructive criticism. The hardest lesson young pitchers and young poets have to learn is that their job is to listen, and to read, carefully.
The young have it over the older generations in everything but those degrees earned in schools of hard knocks. Many of the birds setting off on migrations and falling into the sea or getting lost under a maze of spinning stars—each year tens of thousands of birds never make it on their long and arduous journeys—are young ones who never made the trip before. Birds, baseball players, and poets need to find out what was in order to understand better what is. I tell student poets that the best way to develop is to read poetry of all ages and all cultures, to ask of every poet, Who in the world do you think you are? The answer varies of course from poet to poet (as it does from pitcher to pitcher), but also from poem to poem.
Readers are also invited to examine a previous post at “One Poet’s Notes” relating to this topic: “David Bottoms: ‘Sign for My Father, Who Stressed the Bunt.’”