That Great Baseball Summer of 1982
"Break the Guinness record?"
"Who, YOU? You must be KIDDING!"
The cries of laughter
that rang through the hills of Willapa Town
that summer when the mill was down
and the woods were quiet too,
were cries of disbelief, mostly,
that any fool who sat on a stool
at the local pub could hope to rub
elbows with a Guinness award for endurance!
But the echo resounded with glee!
Almost like a guarantee
that more spirited young lads had not yet been born!
"Then we'll make it a BENEFIT game!
And YOU can have the fame!
For we KNOW what we're made of!!"
cried the boys of a feather whose days together
were previously spent
walking the tightrope in work and in play,
flirting with danger 'most every day,
(or boozing and cruising and closer to losing
sight of more tomorrows
than any day on record anyway).
So, a benefit marathon was born
in Willapa Town when the mill was down,
in that great baseball summer of 1982,
and the cries that rang through the evergreen hills
changed in tune to ones that sang
"They AREN'T kidding!" once the 300th inning began!
The stands were full now,
applauding the boys in the field,
and so were the skies which poured forth
their own sentiments to nourish the crops in the field,
but which did little for the boys in the field
except to build some character
by presenting yet another challenge called MUD!
Then, while the innings were changing,
and the days were turning to nights,
so too the hecklers changed,
now becoming care takers
of sprains and strains and blistered feet,
of socks, and towels, and things to eat,
while slow pitch ball became slow death for all
who couldn't sleep or cope or eat,
and who had no sight of tomorrow at all,
but were still hanging on
by the fragile threads of determination.
By the 4th day,
after 91 hours and 21 minutes
playing 552 innings of baseball,
with a final score of 365 to 283,
the wild-eyed crowd was cheering,
for the end was finally nearing,
and Willapa Town had HEROES!
(But was also fearing for their lives,
for when the umpire hollered "GAME!"
they watched the spent and the lame
fall in a heap, determined to sleep forever.)
Soon the cries that rang down
the evergreen hills of Willapa Town
were cries of pride that came from inside
for everyone loves a hero,
especially one who tried
to break a world's record
for the longest slow pitch game in history,
and raised $20,000 doing it!
"We BROKE the Guinness record
for the longest game—NO KIDDING!"
was the song they were singing then,
in that great baseball summer of 1982
when the mill was down, and the woods were quiet too,
and the heavens poured nourishment
on the crops in the field,
and lessons in character building
were handed down to the next generation
of spirited young lads
who would set their own records
for hanging tough
by the fragile threads of youth,
while still hoping for a glimpse
of yet another tomorrow.
Copyright 2011 by Isa "Kitty" Mady
Critique by Tracy Koretsky
It's spring at last. What a perfect time for a poem about baseball! And what better way to convey the fun and drama of that game than with one of poetry's most enduring and entertaining forms: the ballad.
It's also a great opportunity to remind readers that WinningWriters.com has an exciting new Sports Poetry and Prose Contest. So, this month, with the help of "That Great Baseball Summer of 1982" by Isa "Kitty" Mady as well as a few classics, we'll look at how vibrant sports writing is constructed.
In general, I am not a fan of the common practice in which a teacher tells a student to go off and study a famous piece. This can intimidate, squelching the creative urge with the weight of the comparison, but there is a reason teachers do this. Sometimes it is the best advice.
In this case, it serves, amongst other things, to demonstrate how perfectly Mady has married topic to form. Today the word "ballad" has come to mean a slow popular song, usually romantic. Originally, though, ballads were the fare of wandering minstrels. Literally singing for their supper, balladeers had to engross if they wanted to eat. Other than light verse, which delights with wit, there is no other poetic form intended solely to entertain. The ballad, however, does not operate by wit. Rather, its vehicle is plot.
As a plot-driven form, ballads frequently laud a single character, often a tragic hero, as in "Barbara Allen", which dates as least as far back as the 17th century, yet endures to this day as one of the most popular folk ballads in the British Isles. Notice that, just as in Mady's poem, dialogue plays a significant role. In fact, ballads are more likely to contain dialogue than any other form of poetry. At its best, this dialogue conveys regional color through accent or idiom.
Also like Mady's piece, there is a rhyme scheme. "Barbara Allen" is an example of the traditional ballad scheme of a/b/c/b, though forms vary and evolve over time.
At first glance, you might not think Mady's poem suits that description, but a little deeper analysis shows that, setting the given line breaks aside, a pattern emerges for much of the first long stanza:
The cries of laughter that rang through
the hills of Willapa Town
that summer when the mill was down
and the woods were quiet too,
were cries of
disbelief, mostly, that any fool
who sat on a stool
at the local pub could hope to rub
However, the a/b/b/a; c/d/d/c scheme soon unravels. If Mady should choose to maintain it, she will need to rework the next few lines. Line thirteen might end with "chance", for example, to form a rhyme with "endurance". Alternatively, the somewhat awkward syntax of line 10 might reconfigure to something like "winner of a Guinness" or "Guinness award", both of which offer other opportunities for rhyme.
As an example of the kind of redrafting I mean, here are a few revised lines from the end of the first stanza:
So, in that great baseball summer of '82
a benefit was born—a marathon
in Willapa town, when the mill was down
and the cries that rang through
A note here about using numbers in poems: as poetry is an oral form, numeric words must indicate how they are to be said aloud. Is $20,000 meant to be voiced as "twenty thousand dollars?" If so, write it that way. Other choices might be "twenty g" or "grand" or "thou," all of which are more colorful, fewer syllables, and offer more possibility for rhyme. Likewise, when dealing with time, one might choose "21 minutes past 91 hours," for more rhyming opportunities, or "nineteen hundred and eighty-two" to affect a folkloric tone. Many creative choices are possible.
In the second section Mady foregoes rhyme for repetition: "field" pairs with "field"; "changing" with "change"; "eat" with "eat". This is a wonderful impulse. As a second canto, it operates like the second movement in a symphony. A new timbre and tempo refreshes the reader. Also, as its subject is the numbing iteration of innings, the repetition provides a sonic counterpart. The problem is, just as in stanza one, the pattern peters out.
We might question here whether it is worth the bother to adhere to a pattern and break lines to emphasize it. In very practical terms, rebuilding a poem towards a specific scheme is difficult and, because rhyme is so noticeable, it can easily overwhelm. Today, most traditional forms have been revisited, favoring subtler rhymes.
Personally, I enjoy that Mady has embedded many of her rhymes internally. They are less predictable, keeping the poem fun to read. More importantly, their frequency and exactness create a kind of drumbeat, heightening the drama. For that reason, the scheme, whether presented internally or as end rhyme, is well worth a formal analysis that will continue and strengthen it.
Besides, with a completed scheme, "That Great Baseball Summer of 1982" would suit formal poem competitions in which, I believe, it might do well. Also, in Mady's particular case, I sense such a revision is more attainable than usual. For one thing, the scheme is already nearly intact. More importantly though, I feel there is still work to do on a more basic level that will present new possibilities. Specifically, I refer to diction.
Have a look at Franklin Pierce Adams's "A Ballad of Baseball Burdens". The first thing you might notice about it is that it is not, in fact, a ballad—a story, but rather an ode—a praise song. Adams, famous in his day for his light, witty, verse, has indulged in a bit of consonance at the expense of accuracy. Never mind. Notice instead his lively diction choices. Verbs like "swat", "biff", "clout", and "slug" are the spice that makes good sports writing tasty. Expressions from the lexicon like "jasper league" and "on the knob", not to mention the various players' names, add authenticity, perfectly setting the tone.
Now, Ms. Mady has already demonstrated that she is a natural rhymer. Redrafting with striking, active verbs, and phrases from the baseball diction family will not only give her lots of room to formalize her rhyme scheme, they will make this already fun poem an absolute pleasure to read.
That is, once she reorganizes her story a bit. Remember, first and foremost, the ballad is plot-driven; its intent, to relay a dramatic tale. As a case in point, let us refer to Ernest Lawrence Thayer's ever-popular "Casey at the Bat". (By the way, would-be sports writers, check out the great links on the left of that page. Also, there is also an awfully fun reading of the poem by James Earl Jones.)
Now "Casey at the Bat" is a masterwork, a true piece of the American canon, beloved by generations. I apologize again for comparing Mady's poem to it, but there is so much there to be enjoyed—and learned from.
Once again we have lively diction: "the former was a hoodoo and the latter was a cake." Dialogue like "We'd put up even money now" is idiomatic, contributing to the tone, a tone consistently humorous in its self-consciously heightened drama: "ten thousand eyes" vs. "five thousand tongues." I particularly admire the rare expressive use of meter in the phrase, "and a smile on Casey's face," which breaks the rhythm for a quick triplet, like a child's sudden happy skip.
But above all, what makes "Casey" succeed as a dramatic work is that it has beats. "Beats" are what fiction writers and playwrights call the movement between characters, or between character and setting—the back and forth. See how Thayer has used the movement back and forth between the playing field and the crowd to develop the crowd as if it had a singular personality?
Baseball, as a subject, lends itself naturally to beats, with pauses inherent in its nine innings, and one, two, three strikes, you're out. Take a moment to think about how the beats work in "Casey". See how they are present in every stage of the plot: the set up, the main action and the resolution?
Take note too, of where Thayer chooses to begin his story. There is some brief set-up to the action, but we are already in the game. "That Great Baseball Summer of 1982" uses a different strategy—a long preamble. It's a good choice, imbuing a quasi-folkloric tone. But what I question is whether the first lines are the place to reveal that this ballgame will be played in the hopes of a Guinness record. It might work better coming later, as a surprise. And I'm pretty sure there may be a few beats missing before that 300th inning.
The second section of Mady's poem is more directly comparable to the action in "Casey". The game is in progress. We are told (alas, not shown) that rain becomes mud. In the next beat we discover that the hecklers change. But we never knew there were hecklers in the first place—a sign that we are missing a beat.
The beats in the second section of "That Great Baseball Summer..." might possibly go something like this:
1) The hecklers begin.
2) Day turns to night.
3) The sky threatens rain.
4) The players react.
5) The crowd reacts.
6) It does rain! Boy, does it rain!
7) More hours, more minutes, more innings...
8) Could they break the record? (What record? An exciting new element!)
9) The crowd become caretakers.
And so forth. Mady is clearly a spirited storyteller. Once she takes the time to list and order all the details of her drama, I suspect the words will offer themselves.
You may be wondering where there is room in this already long piece for added beats. Actually, the poem is not overly long for a ballad at this point, though much longer and, indeed, it might strain the reader's attention. Removing some of the redundancy will open space for character development and specific detail.
Make sure every detail is actual information and new information at that. If it refers to previous information, it must develop it. Currently, the poem's third section is mostly recap. Mady has used repetition here as a type of coda. While this is a solid musical instinct, remember, codas generally modulate in key. Bear in mind too, that other great ballads like "Casey" and "Barbara Allen" resolve almost immediately after the final action, allowing their dramatic finales to linger in their impact.
And yes, I said "other great ballads". I really believe that, with revision, the addition of some entertaining and memorable details, Mady has everything she needs to craft an excellent poem. She has a charming story to tell and, apparently, an innate musicality with which to tell it. I only hope that when her skies pour "forth their own sentiments", she'll slip in a little reference to Mudville, and that, for a moment, there will be joy.
Where might a poem like "That Great Baseball Summer of 1982" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Alabama State Poetry Society Poetry Competition
Postmark Deadline: March 23
Prizes up to $50 in a variety of themed categories; previously published poems accepted
Writers' Workshop Annual Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: March 30
Top prize in this contest from the Writers' Workshop of Asheville, NC is your choice of a 3-night stay at their Mountain Muse B&B, or 3 free workshops, or 100 pages line-edited and revised by their editorial staff
Kay Snow Writing Awards
Postmark Deadline: April 23
Oregon's largest writers' association gives awards up to $300 in adult category, $50 in student category, for poetry, fiction, nonfiction, screenwriting, and juvenile (a short story or article for young readers)
Senior Poets Laureate Competition
Postmark Deadline: June 30
Amy Kitchener's Angels Without Wings Foundation awards top prize of $500 for poems by US citizens (including those living abroad) who are aged 50+
This poem and critique appeared in the March 2012 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).