“the craft of baseball poetry”
Tim Peeler’s Home Run Feeling
Touching All the Bases: Poems from Baseball. Jefferson, NC:
McFarland & Company, 2000. 128 pp. $18.95
Waiting for Godot’s First Pitch: More Poems from Baseball.
Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2001. 122 pp. $20
Among the cliches about sports literature is that sports is a metaphor for life. Not that this notion is untrue. But it is a bit overused. We should not be surprised, then, that in these two collections of baseball poems by writer, editor and teacher, Tim Peeler, the best poems are the ones that do not exploit baseball as a metaphor. Rather, the best poems are the ones that permit the literal event to resonate. With baseball, perhaps more than with other sports in America, the event itself is often loaded with significance, often summoning from readers responses to issues off the subject, issues related intimately to the context baseball creates. Peeler is aware of this fact. Ironically, though time falls meaninglessly through a baseball game, baseball itself has fallen with terrific weight through events of a nation, a community, and an individual family. The best of Peeler’s poems capture these events and do so with subtlety and grace.
In his best poems, Peeler’s use of the literal event urges us to read his baseball poems as larger than literal, as something more than the narrow baseball-as-life paradigm that seems the product of ESPN, Ken Burns videos, and the recollection of aged former athletes. Peeler’s poems ought to be read because his insistence that he’s “not locked to a simple metaphor” rightly emphasizes baseball’s intimate connection to historical, political, and familial events. That’s the point, after all, of good poetry; it eschews the easy metaphor and goes for something higher, more worthy — and perhaps this is the reason we read poems about Henry Aaron’s 715th home run rather than settle for the video of Hammerin’ Hank circling the bases, perhaps conscious as he did so of threats made against his life by the letters, phone calls, and shouts of racists. Among other challenges a writer of poems about baseball must confront is the question of why write a poem about it if a video can just as easily and perhaps more reliably in some instance represent the game. Peeler answers this question indirectly by allowing his poems to take up subjects related to but not directly in the game of baseball. In short, while it might be inevitable in our culture that to write about sport intelligently we must analyze it as a metaphor, Peeler’s best baseball poems actually give a fuller view of the entire scene, moments in and around the game we might have missed otherwise.
In “When Wolfe Watched the Dodgers,” for instance, Peeler addresses the same issues I mention in the preceding paragraphs.
years he struggled
in a brooklyn basement apartment
now they would say “paying his dues.”
passed afternoons at ebbets
after all night furiously scrawling
on anything that would receive his energy —
he got there early,
reflected on the echoes
of batting practice shots,
contemplated such questions,
which tilt of the head
throws the fartherest tobacco,
is this the true secret of happiness,
of manhood, of america?
These concluding questions, naturally but perhaps unfortunately, take us into the baseball metaphor. Does baseball signify happiness? manhood? America? Perhaps the metaphor is inevitable or maybe a writer writing about baseball in America must acknowledge the metaphor to establish credibility with an audience that expects him to do so. Maybe these poems prove that the metaphor can only be written around, the way we bear to the right when we approach a divided highway. Clearly, what I like best here and elsewhere in these two collections is that Peeler doesn’t stop with the easy questions. After all, this is Thomas Wolfe he’s talking about in the poem, in a part of Wolfe’s life we hardly think about when reading his novels. Baseball, through which time passes easily and undisturbed, passes through this time in Wolfe’s life. The poem ends with Wolfe “finding and loving/this experience, far/ beyond the flux/ of his great description.”
In these two volumes, we get Peeler’s poetic take on Henry Aaron, Roger Maris, Satchel Paige, Curt Flood, and many other notable players. Each of these figures were significant for the times in which they played, the biases they confronted and overcame, and the resonance of their lives as major league ballplayers in the culture of their time. But it’s equally important that Peeler finds space for “John Billy’s Story”; someone named Travis, who “Throws his beer cans away,/ Fears they’ll make/ Them into bats —”; another named Wayne Hollar, “The Kangaroo Kid”; Ellis, who “had a steel plate in his head” and “was the closest thing we/ Ever had to those new robot pitchers.” More often than not we get that literal event from which the color of the sport spurts out like a baseball almost caught after a long run, a “snow cone.” We’d like to squeeze it with both hands, as our dad’s long insisted, so it won’t fall to the ground in error. As Peeler puts it: “But this is a true story, and Barney/ Not some metaphor…/ Just a very simple man marking his time.” Barney has passed through time as baseball has passed through Barney.
To be certain, some poems require prior knowledge of the game and its great players, many of whom Peeler brings to life briefly in his poems after careers in the Negro League. In “Josh, What the Future,” the narrator ponders what Josh Gibson might be able to accomplish if he were playing today. The poet concludes:
It’s like asking what would Jimi Hendrix be playing now:
you think you know, maybe,
but it doesn’t matter.
Josh, a victim of his time, was “amos ’n andied to death,” in “Josh, You Were.”
One might argue that by the time Peeler got to the writing of his second volume, he had a better understanding of what he wanted to get done. Still, so much of this writing is involuntary, unplanned, spontaneous that both books are filled with surprises. And there is no repetition in spite of the fact there are nearly 250 poems in these two collections combined. These poems often make for fast and enjoyable reading. But they just as often challenge even the most avid baseball fan’s recollection of players in the context of their times. Peeler tells a kind of history of the twentieth century in the United States, but does so by writing off the subject or by creating context for the baseball poems he writes.
I feel special joy when Peeler reaches this kind of insight in a collection of baseball poems. “Dusting off the Plate of the Moon,” from Waiting for Godot’s First Pitch:
The magnificent December one hovers
Above the slope of eastern sky; money
Rules the day game, but here, when a cloud ssssslides
Over the yellow dish, and the wind tips
The hats of the pines gently, the seats are
Free on my front porch, unobstructed, too.
I highly recommend these books as entertaining reading and fun for even the most astute historian of the game and enthusiastic reader of poetry. If you’re both, as many of us are, this is a must read.