“You can observe a lot just by watching.” – Yogi Berra
“Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.” – Yogi Berra
I don’t think my parents could have predicted I’d become a poet when they gave me my first baseball glove for Christmas when I was eight. It was all I wanted that year. It remains one of the few presents whose de-boxing is etched in my mind.
Nor could I have predicted that all those afternoons and nights spent on the diamond during every spare moment that northern Wisconsin’s weather allowed would result in my penchant for penning poems starting in college and continuing long after the last time I put on a uniform and felt freshly-dragged dirt beneath metal cleats.
Baseball is an undeniable drudge at times. No other sport requires so much patience from not only fans, but also players. An age can seem to stretch between each pitch and for some players; it may be hours in the field before a ball comes their way. Then again, being a batter is hardly preferable, failure being the norm, success a type of anomaly. Thus, baseball exacts a unique toll on its participants. It requires a different sort of preparation and training, one that is equally mental, a sharpness that is ever ready and unquenchable. In this, it resembles poetry and the underlying throb of power that the world of poetry contains.
Writing good poetry takes time and preparation. Though above all it requires an orientation to the world similar to an outfielder, poised for anything that might come his way. He may go a whole game without anything or he may be responsible for all three outs in an inning. But his singular attention is required, or else the consequences may be dire. Perhaps the acquisition of a poetic subject is not as high-stakes as an out in a baseball game, but I have found that to write poetry, to stay continually inspired enough to keep writing, requires that I filter the world through a lens that hopes to slant every experience into a poem. I must think like a consumer of literature at all times, that I might become an engine pumping new poems back out. In this way I am an outfielder, mobilized on the balls of his feet, crouched, glove hand and free hand never far apart, poised for the seed of poetry to head my way following the sharp crack of wood at the plate.
Being a poet is also like being up to bat. Just like how batters in baseball are considered exceptional if they get a hit every third time at bat, I would consider any poet stellar who writes a good poem every one out of three tries. Poetry is agonizing to get right and it is the kind of vocation that can seem futile, riddled with swings and misses. But when that home run, that epiphany-like string of lines coalesces, nothing else quite compares. It takes the breath away when an idea whistles through my fingers onto a page and I realize that I have created something that, at least in the moment, seems magical.
The same is true of reading poetry. As the editor of a literary magazine, I see more foul balls than homeruns in the reading process. Yet when a special poem comes along, it can floor me, reshaping my world in the space of a breath. Poetry is detonation, fiction is radiation. Both will strike at your core, but one can it do instantly, needing no build, no fuse.
In peeling back the layers of the world, in exploring the human condition, nothing cuts as sharply and as quickly as a deftly wrought poem. And so I keep stepping up to the plate, waiting for the homeruns to come, both in my capacity as an editor and in my capacity as a writer.
Because as many duds as there might be, as many strikeouts as I might experience and read, all of its fades when the language is torqued just so, exit velocity perfected to explore the upper reaches of the stadium.
Casey Stengel, one of the great managers in baseball history, once said “Most ball games are lost, not won.” The same is true of poetry. Most of them are losses. It takes something transcendent for a poem to win. When it does though, nothing else compares in literature.
One last quote from Hank Aaron, who long held baseball’s homerun record: “My motto was always to keep swinging.” For all that I’ve learned in writing and editing over the years, the one thing I know is that poetry is too powerful not to hit it out of the park eventually. As long as I keep swinging.
Michael Prihoda lives in central Indiana. He is the founding editor of After the Pause, an experimental literary magazine and small press. His work has received nominations for the Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net Anthology and he is the author of nine poetry collections, most recently Out of the Sky (Hester Glock, 2019).