Starting this afternoon, Hofstra University will host “The 50th Anniversary of the New York Mets,” a three-day academic conference dedicated to considering the often-fumbling Mets in serious, unexpectedly highbrow ways. In the magazine this week, we presented sections from a paper studying the societal significance of Mr. Met, and yesterday we posted highlights of an essay discussing the similarities between Homer’s The Odyssey and the Mets. Today: excerpts from Don Bowen and Henry Krusiewicz’s paper, “Poetic License and the New York Mets: How Poetic Forms Ritualize the Mets,” which discusses, amongst other things, life, love, death, and José Reyes’s controversial 2011 batting title.
On the similarities between the form of poetry and baseball:
“First, poetry and baseball are games. Poetry is a literary art form that makes wordplay central to its modus operandi, and baseball is defined as a game. Each has a set of rules, patterns, and defined shapes governing how each one opens, proceeds, and closes. Second, each activity has its roots in oral and numerical formulations. Poetry begins as an oral art form before recorded history. Aesthetically speaking, poetry is a shaped selection of speech that seeks to amplify the impact of its meaning through harmony, pattern, and measured utterance. The actual play of baseball is dictated by a series of oral patterns that create rhythm and flow of its experience. The most fundamental pattern in baseball is the ball and strike count. This initial metrical pattern of four balls and three strikes sets in motion new metrical patterns such as outs, runs, innings, hits, at bats, and pitch counts. All of these numbers create the symmetry of the game, just as numbers and kinds of poetic feet make up the symmetry of poetry. Third, poetry and baseball are rooted in ‘ritual frames.’ Let us define this for you. A ritual frame is an artificial shape — a highly idealized and unrealistic pattern of experience. An example of a highly artificial frame in poetry is the shape and pattern of the sonnet … This dialectic takes place in fourteen lines with a set end rhyme pattern and a series of poetic feet that add up to 140 accents or beats per sonnet … (In baseball) the standard frame is nine innings and twenty-seven outs.”
On poetry, love, baseball, human existence, prayer, and death:
“The experience of love transcends our ability to resolve it fully in speech. To put it simply, love is too big a subject for one human to comprehend. Therefore, we create rules that essentially challenge us to say something significant about love within the boundaries of a ritualized frame or forever hold our tongues. Baseball works in a similar vein … When one team reaches twenty-seven outs and a run differential exists, then the ritualized frame of the game demands its close. The game is over, even if it is a great game, even if we yearn for it to continue. This frame corresponds to a notion of real time. But the reason why we love baseball is because the game promises something outside of real time and our day-to-day experience. So long as the game is tied and the score is zero to zero in the ninth inning the game continues. Moreover, if no one scores again the game can continue on, at least in theory, forever and thereby suspend the reality of human existence. This endless game, of course, is the ritualized frame of baseball that approaches the first poems uttered by humans: namely prayers. And what are prayers other than the sincere desire for a harmonious life in accordance with a great cosmic umpire. Baseball, if it is played well and evenly contested inning by inning, promises to forestall death itself.”
On “Reyes Sits at the Finish Line,” by James Finn Garner, about José Reyes’s 2011 batting title:
“When Jose Reyes won the batting title, he did so by famously choosing to bunt in the first inning and then requesting (there is still some debate on this issue) to be lifted from the game in favor of a pinch hitter. This move brought on a chorus of boos from loyal Mets fans. This act of self-preservation maintained Reyes’ .337 average as well as assured him the batting title … In choosing to forgo his last several at bats and win the batting title in such a non-heroic fashion, Jose Reyes gave up his place among angels to grovel with ordinary men or worse. Garner certainly argues this point when he writes: ‘When Jose Reyes won the title/it gave us pause to check his mettle./which body part did serve him best:/His heart, his biceps, or his ass?’ … Garner’s poem is an example of highly effective and thoughtful use of free verse. It makes effective use of alliteration to create the illusion of end rhyme with ‘title’ and ‘mettle,’ and to a lesser degree ‘best.’ The tone and the pace of the lines are measured and filled with restraint; it is this restraint that builds drama in the heart of the poem through anticipation of its sarcastic resolution. These four lines represent a very humorous way to suggest that Reyes cheated baseball and in the view of the poet, he cheated his chance for immortality. But more importantly, it is clear that Reyes cheated the poet himself, and if we follow the poem’s structure we are moved by the meter and the images to understand that he cheated us all.”
On haikus and David Wright’s fragility:
“The most typical approach to writing poetry about the Mets took the form of haiku. There are thousands of haikus on a range of subjects so vast that it boggles the mind … The best we can say about the multitude of haiku on the Mets is that perhaps the very straight-forward structure of the poem with its five, seven, five beat progression in a compressed tercet does not seem overly daunting to baseball fans often masquerading as poets. One of our favorite haikus is written by Carol S. McDade and is entitled ‘David Wright Haiku.’ It reads: ‘David Wright does not/Succumb to injured digit/Whether hand or foot/’ This poem was posted online on April 22, 2009. It is now April of 2012 and David Wright is still battling injuries to his digits … There is something incredibly powerful and simultaneously fragile about David Wright. In this respect he reminds us of other great player with the same characteristics such as Tony Oliva or Bob Horner. The game demands that players play in pain to perform at a high level. McDade’s haiku captures that sentiment perfectly. Her insistence on ‘does not succumb’ is a kind of wish that if it spoken well enough and poetically enough will grant Wright’s ‘digit[s] whether hand or foot’ to magically mend. Given the Mets’ anemic offense this spring, perhaps the haiku should be spoken aloud and in unison by Mets fans before each game. Who knows what the power collective speech can bring to the oft-injured body of the Mets’ best hitter?”
On Mets losses and our sense of self:
“No fan relishes any loss. Another point is that the game, even after a loss, never really ends. It persists in memory building a ‘house of cards tumbling.’ A kind of ontological crisis ensues which begs us to ask, ‘Why is it so difficult to reclaim a stable sense of self after a Mets’ loss?’ The answer to the implied question in Messina’s poem is this: we find it hard to move on after a Mets’ loss because many of us have created from the stuff of the Mets an extended metaphor for the ups and downs of our existence. In the Mets, poets have created a mirror to reflect an image of desire. This image, like all mirror images — reverses the order of things. Lives move forward in time, but Messina’s poem moves it backwards. We see not just a Mets’ loss or victory but an image of ourselves in that first moment we were transfixed by the game of baseball. In that mirror, we see ourselves loving the game. That image is restorative. It moves us beyond present reality and returns us to a kind of eternal game. Of course in our ability to imagine this game, we are in play too. In the end, we love baseball because it throws us to a host of imaginative spaces and times. It is a thrilling life-long journey, which we all hope ends at the most comforting and sentimental points of origin: home plate for the start of another pitch and another chance to take our swing and to run the bases.