This being baseball season, and my beloved Detroit Tigers winning the American League Pennant from that big money monster team from New York, I thought it might be fun to reflect on a baseball poem.
There are many odes to baseball in the annals of American poetry, (just as there are from Canada, the Dominican Republic and South American), so I wanted to look at a particularly good example of this subject genre. Pitcher by Robert Francis is a poem I have read and reread over the past several years. It is one of those poems that once read take up residence inside your head. Each time I return to this poem I see more or rather I see what I missed before. That’s part of the miracle of poetry and something this poem considers.
Here’s the poem.
by Robert Francis
His art is eccentricity, his aim
How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at,
His passion how to avoid the obvious,
His technique how to vary the avoidance.
The others throw to be comprehended. He
Throws to be a moment misunderstood.
Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,
But every seeming aberration willed.
Not to, yet still, still to communicate
Making the batter understand too late.
Ostensibly this is a short poem about a baseball pitcher’s mode of operation — the intention of “his art.” The reader is told he is eccentric and aims not to hit the mark (make a strike) but rather to seemingly avoid it. We understand this is a pretty straight forward description of pitcher’s attempt both to fool the umpire and the batter. All pitchers aim to hit that moving edge of the strike zone. They intend to make the batter swing at a bad pitch or not swing at a good one and for the umpire to call a ball a strike. Pitchers accomplish this by using a variety of pitches that veer off, sink or curve or at times jump around (my favorite, the screwball), as they near the plate. A pitcher’s pitches are intentionally deceptive.
So the question here is why did the poet focus on this one aspect of the pitcher’s art? Seeing that this poet is familiar with baseball and pitching, why use these particular words for his poem? Most curious, why did this poem compare the intention of the pitcher’s throwing with that of the other players. “The others throw to be comprehended.”Why the word “comprehended?” You’d think if the poet was describing the intention of throwing a ball on a baseball field he would have said something like ‘The others throw to be caught.’ In fact, the poem doesn’t use any baseball jargon at all. This is a poem, like all good poems, that is intentional about its word choice.
Obviously, by throwing in a seemingly odd word, the poet is able to describe more than baseball. He was talking about intentions, deception and the need to appear to be one thing but actually be another. It is a poem not just about the “pitcher’s art,” but also about the art of pitching words, something we all do, whether writers or speakers.
One way of looking at this poem, and there are many, is to think of the pitcher here as representing a poet and his craft. “His passion how to avoid the obvious.” The poet consistently pitches words in a way others don’t. We are told the others want to be “comprehended.” In this kind of game the others intend to be caught. A pitcher on the other hand, wishes to be a “moment misunderstood.” Not forever misunderstood but for a moment. Why?
I don’t want to ruin the poem for anyone by saying this is the only interpretation of this poem. I would never say that, lest I ignore the other mysteries in the poem. There are lines here that go beyond baseball or poetry. I think this poem could also be read as advice to readers. It could also be taken as the art of handling metaphors and diction. I only mention these because it may be a way into the poem for some who may wonder why the language seems to make a kind of sense but not perfect sense. It’s the same feeling that a batter feels when he swings at a seemingly perfect pitch and misses. Most batters “understand too late” but they do understand.
You can throw your own ideas around on this one. Maybe one of you reading will hit on an idea strong enough to leave my ideas behind. Go ahead, take a swing. Leave a note if you like.
Here are some other baseball poems. Though the Francis poem was not included, a commentator correctly pointed out that it should be. There is also a good discussion of two baseball poems linked at the bottom of that page.
Click here to hear a recording of the poet, Robert Francis, reading and commenting on several of his poems in the last year of his life. Several times he addresses his need to choose the curious, rather than the expected word.
The poem above can be found in the anthology, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart: Poems for Men, or in the Orb Weaver by Robert Francis. It is available at Amazon here.