Sunday, October 15, 2006

Poetry is like baseball

Now there's an opening, eh? Especially at this time of year.

So, you're thinking, Bardiac, make good on that analogy.

Every play in baseball pretty much begins with a pitch. If a pitcher threw every pitch at the same speed, to the same part of the imaginary "box" of a good pitch, the hitters would be very very happy. And fans would get quite bored.

Groups of words have rhythms; rhythmic poetry emphasizes the repetition of rhythms. Ta dum, ta dum, ta dum, Doo wop, doo wop, doo wop. But just as pitching at the same speed to the same spot would be so predictable that most hitters would hit a lot, so rhythmic poetry that's really regularly rhythmic would get irritating or worse, boring, fast.

As readers, we're like batters. And poets are like pitchers. Except we're not opponents, we're cooperating. So the analogy breaks down a bit.

Poets may choose to give us rhythms to help us build expectations, to give us the pleasures of repetition. But if they gave us nothing but the same repetitions, we'd quickly find them boring. That's why we make jokes about someone with a really nice voice reading the phone book. A phone book has lots of poetic features: repetition and patterns set up our expectations; information is tightly condensed; words stand metonymically for physical people and physical addresses, arabic numerals stand for the dialing (or press-button) pattern we could follow. But the repetition is overwhelming, too overwhelming to make for long pleasureable reading.

Back to the pitching analogy. Pitchers try to set batters up, and batters (and their coaches) try to outguess pitchers. If a pitcher throws a couple fast balls, a hitter starts expecting fast balls, starts thinking in terms of the fast ball. So the pitcher has to throw a curve, or a change up, or to the inside or outside of the imaginary box, or high, or low, something to mess with the batter's expectations.

A good pitcher sets up batters with patterns and changes, which leaves those who watch baseball endlessly interested in what the next pitch will be, and in how the batter will react.

Similarly, a good poem gives us expectations, whether through form or repetition, for example, and then gives us changes so that we're always looking with interest at what's happening, always feeling our way through what's happening and how we're reacting. Some poems use repeated patterns of rhythm, and some resist repeated patterns of rhythmic repetition, but even the least "regularly metrical" poem has rhythms, and we can observe them if we're careful, and think about how they affect our understanding of the poem. The poems that use regular rhythmic repetition give us more help, but may also seem deceptively easy.


At this point, I'm going to work with another example, but I'm not sure quite yet what I'll work from. I want to work with something that's going to be reasonably familiar, but not so familiar as to be boring. And what I want to do is look at and tease out the ways that poets toss in trochees and spondees at the beginnings of lines, because that's often where they get interesting.

I also think I need to talk a bit about an exercise I do with students to think about the rhythms of various formations of their names. My legal name has what I consider an abysmal rhythmic structure. Bardiac, on the other hand, has a pretty nice rhythm. So, I need to work that in as well, probably to an earlier part.

Potentials: The master of the "yet" and "but" is Spenser. I could put up the first two stanzas of book one of the Faerie Queene and work out the ways that he plays with meter there. The big disadvantages to Spenser is that his spelling is so off-putting that many folks are uncomfortable with it AND I doubt most people ask students to read any part of the FQ in most intro to poetry classes. I want my talk to be immediately useful, so that someone uncomfortable with poetry could walk into a classroom and make them work.

Then there's that Shakespeare guy. The first sentence of "Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediment" is pretty much a gold mine of poetic play. Too familiar? Students start out thinking they know all about it, but then they realize there's a lot more there once they're paying close attention.

Or, dang, I hate that I love Marvell's "To his Coy Mistress" so much, but I do (of all the long dead poets I study or teach, I think Marvell and Herrick would actually be the most fun to meet and hang out with, and maybe Ben Jonson, all of them sexist as all get out, but so fun, too). It's also got some absolutely masterful changeups. I can make a lot of rhythmic hay talking about:

Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

Advice? Other examples?


  1. Great analogy regarding baseball -- must be the season!

    I won't begin to presume that I could offer any advice on this topic, but if you're looking for rhymes that are of a primitive nature, I recall (from a distant -- oh, so distant English class) William Blake's "The Tiger":

    "TIGER, tiger, burning bright
    In the forests of the night,
    What immortal hand or eye
    Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

    In what distant deeps or skies
    Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
    On what wings dare he aspire?
    What the hand dare seize the fire?

    And what shoulder and what art
    Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
    And, when thy heart began to beat,
    What dread hand and what dread feet?

    What the hammer? What the chain?
    In what furnace was thy brain?
    What the anvil? What dread grasp
    Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

    When the stars threw down their spears,
    And water’d heaven with their tears,
    Did He smile His work to see?
    Did He who made the lamb make thee?

    Tiger, tiger, burning bright
    In the forests of the night,
    What immortal hand or eye
    Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?"

    (Back to baseball...could it be that my team inspired this memory?)

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Ooo, that's a great one to play with!

    I'm really not much of a romantic at heart, I'm afraid, but maybe this would be a good choice.

    I guess it would depend which team is yours, Artemis? I've been playing with the baseball analogy in classes for years. I wish I had a better analogy, but it sort of works, and off I go.