William Carlos Williams
Ralph Waldo Emerson
|Maybe the best ball game of the entire season for Red Sox fans was back in late May, around the time winter officially seems to end in Chicago. Baseball before June is not supposed to be artful, and this is why, in the spring, folks still can claim that they are going to Wrigley Field to watch baseball, not just to drink beer. But this Sunday night, an early summer chill rippling through our Wicker Park neighborhood, I persuaded Shelly to accompany me to Lottie's, a tavern down the street, to watch the Red Sox and Yanquis—Pedro Martinez pitching against Roger Clemens, no less—in a game that would determine first place in the American League East. |
"The Cubs and White Sox games are already over," I said, "so there's no way Lottie's won't be showing the Red Sox game. If the Yanquis are winning by a lot, then we can leave."
Sure enough, three of the four televisions at Lottie's carried satellite feed of the game, one of those magic thousand-dollar satellite deals that allow you to choose from 15 or 20 games every night. A television in the far corner showed the regular ESPN feed. The satellite feed came about two seconds delayed from the cable signal.
No one else in the bar seemed to notice this time-lapse. I felt like a clairvoyant. Madame Sosostris has a bad cold, but she's watching the Sox-Yanquis game a half-step ahead of everyone else because Lottie's, a little pub in the Near-North Side of Chicago, subscribes both to ESPN and DirectTV Satellite Service. There I was, Eliot's Hyacinth Girl, hair wet and arms brimming with flowers, televisions all around me.
The giant-screen TV behind me was close-captioned. Shelly would read the announcers' comments to me as I watched the TV in the far corner of the bar. Shelly's interest in baseball—and the Red Sox in particular—is anthropological at best. She is a participant observer, curious enough to sit among the crowd at a ball game, but always as an empiricist and not a fan. She still talks to me about an interleague game we went to at Fenway in the summer of 1998, with a shaky Derek Lowe pitching against the Phillies, and of how this game seemed to illustrate the paradoxes upon which Red Sox culture thrives. Lowe was stuck in a mid-inning jam, having just walked the bases loaded. In 1998, Lowe was a jittery long reliever, nothing like the cool, slackjaw closer he's become. I joined the chorus of boos. I might even have called Lowe a "bum." I know I waved dismissively at him several times.
I said to Shelly, "Lowe is a young pitcher, and this is exactly what he's done all season. He gets tense under pressure and gives up big innings. He doesn't know how to relax on the mound."
"Then why are you all booing him? Doesn't that contradict your purposes? He can't relax if you are booing him. Don't you want him to pitch well?"
There, in Lottie's during this late May Red Sox-Yanquis game, feeding her anthropological Red Sox curiosity, Shelly read announcers' comments to me as they flashed on the close-caption screen behind me—and as I watched the game performed on the television in front. Shelly's reading was deadpan; if her tone had not been ironic, you would've thought her native language was something other than English.
Troy O'Leary fouled off a pitch in the eighth. I noticed another transplanted Sox fan at the other end of the bar—riveted just like me, following the arc of O'Leary's foul ball off-camera the same way our cat follows the buzzing parabolas of houseflies.
Shelly continued her dry closed-caption readings.
"O'Leary tried to pull the ball and dial long-distance at the same time," she said. Her voice trailed off, as if the telephone analogy might be the worst thing she heard all night. Then she added, "Roger hasn't even pitched a complete game this year. He's already thrown 125 pitches."
Later that inning, Trot Nixon won the game with a dramatic home run off a fastball—a nearly perfect pitch from Clemens that failed at the very end, hanging waist-high like a rich and resonating poem that collapses from a final clunky line or two. In the last second the pitch should have broken another couple of inches away from the plate. Nixon swung not too soon, not too late, and cracked the ball over Yankee Stadium's right-centerfield fence.
"Nixon was sitting on that fastball," Shelly said, reading the words as they appeared, captioned, on the television at my back.
After the homer, most other Chicagoans attended to their beers or the jukebox or the pool table. My fellow Sox-rooter from the other end of the bar—with whom I shared shouts and occasional dismay all evening, the two of us riveted—came over and clasped my hand and slapped me on the back. We hollered together then. But the game was not over. In the last half-inning, my fellow-fan and I sat at adjacent bar stools, absorbed as the Yanquis put the tying runners on base. Goodness gracious, Pedro was getting tired, and it seemed like once again the Yanquis would send me scurrying back to Shantideva's The Way of the Bodhisattva to explain how BoSox accomplishments turn so quickly to WoeSox melodrama. Tino Martinez hit a grounder to Jeff Frye at second. Frye caught the ball—but held on to it. Held. Kept it. Wouldn't throw. Frye finally could not take it anymore and ejaculated the ball to Mike Stanley at first (we discovered later that he was waiting for Stanley, who stumbled on his way back to first base.) My fellow displaced WoeSox fan exchanged high-fives and handshakes and shoulder-slapping with me.
Later, Shelly said, "You two should have French-kissed, too. I don't know why you didn't." Then she pantomimed what I would look like French-kissing and hooting a Nixon game-winning homer all at the same time. "You guys were the best part of the night," she said.
Sure, Red Sox fans were happy back then, when the team was cruising in first place and the only major weakness from last year's team, offensive power, seemed solved by the presence of Carl Everett, the power-hitter acquired in the off-season as a free agent. But, as Red Sox fans know, our team is not meant to reinforce our belief in logic, balance, karma, justice, and equilibrium. Just as a cat sees a pencil on a table and must knock it off, the Red Sox, too, must flee toward entropy any time they risk logic and hierarchization. Thus, if the problem in 1999 was lack of power, and if Carl Everett comes to the team in 2000 and hits a bellyful of homers, then the rest of the team must shut down offensively—otherwise, the WoeSox would risk the appearance of a balanced mathematical equation. For the Yanquis, the numbers on either side of the equals-sign are identical; in contrast, the Red Sox are bored with finite equations and try to turn the square root of 3 into a whole number, or to find a space where asymptotes actually come to rest rather than stretch themselves, lawlike, into infinity.
Eventually, the 2000 WoeSox won 10 less games than last year, and we Sox fans lived through no more drama after Nixon's enthralling homer. Sox bats turned to spaghettini as they finished next-to-last in offense. Once again, the Yanquis are playoff contenders and the Red Sox are out of it; or, once again, the Yanquis are writing perfect traditional iambic lines and Shakespearean final couplets, while the rustic unrhymed Red Sox are chasing windmills in a meta-narrative hall of mirrors.
I never saw my fellow-fan from Lottie's again all summer. Now Shelly and I have moved to a different neighborhood, further north toward Wrigley Field in a community with a wonderfully Poe-like name, "Ravenswood." But if I could see this fellow-fan, I think that we would agree that, oddly, we prefer the open-ended, jagged, entropic narratives of each Red Sox season to the traditional lines penned by our Yanqui rivals. The Red Sox's relationship with Yanqui tradition reminds me of the plight of nineteenth-century U.S. writers, who tried anything to write unlike their British counterparts while living in the great shadow of British tradition—just as children often try to rebel in any way from the traditional rules and structures honed by their parents. Recent scholars of transatlantic literary relations between the U.S. and Britain have used the metaphor of "parent-child relations" to describe these two rival approaches to literature in the nineteenth century. England, the parent, had Shakespeare and Milton; the U.S., the warring and rebellious child, gave up the rights to these past literary figures during the American Revolution. Thus, folks like Whitman sought to make art from their "barbaric yawp." Emerson, too, aimed for a style and diction that would stand against past British models. In his famous essay, "The Poet," he wrote that "it is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem—a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture all its own, and adorns nature with a new thing." Emerson, of course, was a better essayist than poet, and his poems themselves often were composed in the time-bound metres and time-worn images he disavowed. Most readers tend to see Whitman's free-verse yawpings as the first real flowering of Emerson's call for a new poetic architecture freed from traditional—in this case, British—adornment.
Following Whitman's lead, maybe we Red Sox rooters should appreciate the team's free-form, entropic history; maybe our best route is to follow the Red Sox as if they were the yawping equivalent to the Yanquis staid and true architecture—enjoy the aesthetics of our team's annual collapsing.
I've found no better example of the Red Sox's tendency toward harmonic disruption than the language of their manager, Jimy Williams, WoeSox manager since 1997, whose newspaper interviews over these years have convinced me that he must be reading the Language Poets or, at least, summoning Wallace Stevens's own deceptively harmonious yawp when he speaks to reporters.
I admit I'm attached to Jimy Williams's poetry, even though when I look at Williams's daily lineups I often wonder if he has one eye on Stevens when he should have both eyes on who bats before and after the Sox's Garciaparra-Everett couplet. I would like to ask him why he rarely allowed Trot Nixon to bat against lefties this season. Summoning his best intonation of "The Idea of Order at Key West," he would tell me:
It was Trot's voice that made
What about Williams's quick hooks of pitchers—when he removes otherwise fine hurlers from games after just four or five innings pitched? Surely he's been asked this by Pedro's older brother, as much a victim of these quick hooks as a cause (two first-inning grand slams in two consecutive games this August). Jimy would just respond with flip dismissal: "Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon." Perhaps he meant the same back in February, when a reporter asked if he had spent the past winter drafting lineup possibilities on napkins. "I don't ever use napkins," Williams said. "I always wear old clothes when I eat."
Jimy's been this way all along. At his first press conference, right after his hiring in November 1997, Williams was asked about Jose Canseco, whose seasons with the Red Sox always were shortened by injuries. Williams seemed to defend Canseco: "If you extend his numbers out, he was under 400 at bats." Presumably, Williams meant that Canseco's low offensive output in 1996 was deceptive because injuries limited him to only about half the normative number of at-bats one would get in a season. Maybe this defense is what Williams meant, because right away he added a perplexing coda. "I know," he said, "if a frog had wings, he wouldn't bump his booty—but if you extend his numbers out." Then his voice trailed off, the silence, I guess, emphasizing his point in the same way that an exhalation completes the cycle of an inhalation. My emphasis on breath instead of language is important, I think, because, following Emerson's remarks on meter, poets from Whitman onward began to focus on the body and the breath as foundations for poetic speech, rather than just on the rhythms and syllables of words themselves, as their English forbearers did. Thus, Whitman's long breath-lines led to the triadic, ladder-like breath-units of Jimy Williams's namesake, William Carlos Williams (a precursor, of course, to Allen Ginsberg's "one speech-breath-thought" poetics, which marries speech, body, and mind in the same way intended by Buddhist meditation practice).
Thus, maybe the best way to understand Williams's remarks about Canseco is not through logic and referential speech, but instead by thinking of them in the poetic tradition begun, almost unwittingly, by Emerson, and extending through Whitman, the other-Williams (William Carlos), and Ginsberg. If we put Jimy Williams's Canseco speech in the triadic lines of William Carlos Williams, we get something like this:
In the tradition of (W.C.) Williams, form and content merge: each breath extends itself out into a line; each line extends past the previous one on the page, then returns every third-line, catching itself at the edge of a new inhalation. As for content, Williams encourages us to extend Canseco's "numbers"—his stats, the only markers of ontological certainty in baseball—at the same time that we, as fans, know that Canseco's major problem is bodily flexibility and, in turn, physical extension. He has constantly been injured in the past several years because his over-bulked muscles prevent athletic flexibility; his back strains and muscle pulls affect more than just bat extension—they keep him out of the lineup for months at a time, and have done so with the Devil Rays and, now, the Yanquis, since leaving the Red Sox in 1998.
Even at his worst—the harried interview with a reporter, the quick and sidelong sound bite—Williams aims to be the Emersonian poet who "adorns" baseball with "a new thing." He took over the team in 1997, after the firing of Kevin Kennedy, a manager who decorated his office with pictures of himself greeting celebrities. When Williams was hired, a reporter asked him if he, too, planned to grace his office walls with celebrity photographs. Williams said, "My teeth are like stars. They come out at night. That's all I know about stars."
Williams indulges his affinity for sounding the depths of words, as any good poet would, while always presuming to keep his poetic persona in the shadows. He prefers teeth-like-stars to star-crossed office walls. Describing his daughter's practice routine as a swimmer at Texas A&M, Williams said to a reporter, "She swims 15,000 yards a day. She gets up at 5 a.m. and swims 7,500 yards, goes to class, then swims another 7,500 yards." At first, Williams seemed lost trying to describe his feelings toward her schedule. Then he added, "I'll use the right word. I can't fathom it." Williams's understanding of the world—and of his vulnerability in the world, his inability to "fathom" its depth—might recall Elizabeth Bishop's "At the Fishhouses":
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, drawn from the cold hard mouth of the world, derived from the rocky breasts forever, flowing and drawn, and since our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.My teeth are like stars; I can't fathom it. I'll use the right word. That's all I know about stars—they are "derived" and "flowing and drawn . . . historical, flowing, and flown." Or, as he said to his team on the first day of spring training on his first season: "Eat good, eat a good breakfast—let's go boys."
The other Williams—William Carlos—once instructed poets to avoid needless didacticism and generalization, reminding them that there are "no ideas but in things," an extension of Ezra Pound's admonition, "Go in fear of abstraction." Jimy Williams, too, sees baseball only as far as the continuous present—only as far as he can stretch the concrete particulars of any given moment. In his first season, many fans wondered whether he would make radical changes to the lineup. He told a reporter that nothing drastic was likely to change, but that if anything did it would occur right away in spring training. Going in fear of abstraction, he said, "Until it happens, it's not going to happen." Just a couple months later, after his first game managing at venerable Fenway Park, he was asked how he felt walking from the Red Sox clubhouse to the dugout for the first time. The trip from clubhouse to dugout has been graced for nearly a century by the greatest Red Sox stars from Babe Ruth through Carl Yastrzemski to Nomar Garciaparra. (If only I'd been there to see Yaz walking back after popping out to Nettles in the 1978 one-game playoff. I'd have given him a piece of my turbulent 12-year-old mind that afternoon.) Urged to consider the venerable history of that pathway, Williams emphasized the previous day's rainstorm at the expense of mythic, abstract generalization. "It was kind of wet down there," he said. The apparition of Yastrzemski in the crowd; petals on a wet, black bough.
Like Pound, whose famous ABC of Reading was as much a manifesto as a book-length scold, Williams does not hesitate to correct us when language is exhausted by the mundane. Once, when asked if his team had given "110 percent" in spring training drills, Williams said, "That cliché drives me bonkers. How can you give 110 percent . . . unless you ate too much for breakfast? I don't know."
Sure, Williams reminds his readers, his ball fans, that language can betray us. But most of all, he is as vigilant about how language can cause us to see the world differently. Blake has written that when we exceed the boundaries of language, we exceed the boundaries of our vision. "You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough," he says to us in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: "Enough! or Too Much." For Jimy Williams, language that exceeds the boundaries of logic and reason is enticing, but ultimately he limits his visions to things that he can actually see. No ideas but in things, sure. As with Bishop, Jimy Williams's "visions" are merely "looks," though no less poetic for him than Blake's visions. In his first season with the Red Sox, he was asked by a reporter why the team was bringing in large numbers of veterans for extended spring training tryouts—a practice they have continued through the 2000 season, often with only marginal success. "You can't have enough of anything," Jimy said, "except dessert." "Call Jimy Williams," we might say as he keeps one eye on his lineup cards and another on Wallace Stevens, "call Jimy Williams / and bid him whip / In lineup cards concupiscent curds." As for how he uses these veterans, who help him extend the boundaries of language as they extend their twilight careers, Williams often keeps his motives to himself: "I always leave the door open maybe just a crack. Except when I'm trying to sleep—then I lock it."
Of course, Williams knows that baseball economics plays as much of a role in his daily lineups as anything else. He would not need to "leave the door open maybe just a crack" if Red Sox General Manager Dan Duquette paid sufficient money for a consistent, productive lineup day after day. Too often, Williams has been forced to stay with aging veterans when younger players were not yet ready for the pressure of big-league baseball—as this year, when Wilton Veras could not take the place of the injured John Valentin, and Duquette provided the transparent bat and glove of Ed Sprague as a replacement. Echoing Robert Frost's "After Apple-Picking," a poem where the concrete and imaginary worlds seem to blur together effortlessly, Williams said:
Well, sure, as with the Canseco speech, I've taken the liberty to lineate Williams's words. Frost says it just as well when he, too, turns to apple harvesting to dramatize the limits of rationality. In this poem, Frost's speaker has abandoned his Babel-like climb to heaven—his "long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree / Toward heaven still," and he is "done with apple-picking now." The speaker suggests that only in sleep, only in the dreams he anticipates, can he shatter the wholly rational world of working the apple harvest:I've said you don't pick
Frost ends the poem asserting the profound differences between the way we make knowledge in the human world and in the natural world; he honors the difference between human dreaming and the dreams he imagines populate the sleep of woodchucks. Jimy Williams claims he "do[es] not know what to tell [us]" about picking apples and, of course, about choosing players for a major league roster. But maybe we could see his words as a response to Frost's efforts in "After Apple-Picking." When your ladder breaks or your tires run out of air, you abandon your climb to heaven for the concrete particulars of the everyday world. Sure, you might be, as Frost's speaker says of himself, "overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired." But Jimy Williams would rather focus on the things of this world rather than its abstractions. Generations of Christian readers have seen the archetypal apple-picking of Genesis as a "fortunate fall," but maybe for Jimy Williams the truest fortunate fall occurs when we ourselves decide on our own to stop climbing—when we choose to fill the tires or fix the ladder rather than continue our Neoplatonic effort to stretch our ladder into heaven. Fitting for a team that has provided ballyard poetics for a century but has not won a championship since 1918.I am drowsing off.
Williams acknowledges that his interests in language and representation have blossomed in Boston. When asked by reporters during Spring Training 2000 if his opening-season speech was similar to previous speeches, he said, "Being in Boston, I've learned some new words. People have educated me there. So maybe I'm saying the same thing, but using different words." More recently, however, he seems reticent, especially after Boston Globe reporter Gordon Edes asked him whether he thought the team's poor performance in 2000 might mean he would not return to manage next year. "Someday," he said to Edes, "we'll go have a soda pop somewhere and I'll talk about it."
No surprise, then, that the first time I actually saw Jimy Williams, the day of his first-day, "Imagining Canseco" press conference performance in 1997, was in front of The Boston Public Library, perhaps the foremost symbol of the City of Boston's enduring cultural capital. I was catching the Number 55 bus from Copley Square back to my neighborhood, and I saw Williams hailing a cab in a dark pinstripe suit. It was November and freezing. I was bundled in a heavy sweater and buttoned to my throat in a pea coat. He wore nothing but the suit, as if somehow the names Longfellow, Emerson, Plato, and Socrates engraved on the Boston Public Library facade at his back were enough to keep him warm. Recalling Emerson—and my own November chill—poetry is not just ornamental meter that buttons its readers against the cold, nor is it simply an extension of meter into a "meter-making argument." Maybe poetry is Jimy Williams hailing a cab in just a suit on a cold day when he was named manager of the dissonant Boston Red Sox, the team for which, borrowing from Stevens, baseball seems to be "the poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice." For Red Sox fans, winning cannot suffice, because all Red Sox seasons have ended in futility since 1918. Wallace Stevens and Jimy Williams assert that a Red Sox season instead must be "the finding of a satisfaction, and may / Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, / a woman / Combing. The poem of the act of the mind." As Jimy Williams himself has said of the relationship between baseball and human communication, "I don't make out the lineup. I just give the players an opportunity to express themselves."
|TONY TRIGILIO saw his first baseball game when he was 5, sitting in the steep upper-deck at Shea Stadium to watch the Mets against the Expos. Since then, he has followed the sport with full confidence that baseball launches us into revelation, and our revelations just as often lead us back to baseball. Trigilio is a former resident of the Fenway neighborhood in Boston. While living in the shadow of Fenway Park, he taught at Northeastern University and co-founded the Fenway Skills Exchange, a grass-roots skills bank. He is a member of the English faculty at Columbia College Chicago, where he teaches courses in writing, literature, and poetry. Trigilio's poetry has been published in numerous journals, and his book on the poetic prophecies of Blake, H.D., and Ginsberg is forthcoming in December 2000 from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.|