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The Poetry of Pitching

06/03/08 5:55PM By Peter Gilbert
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(HOST) The New England Collegiate Baseball League season is here, and the champion Vermont Mountaineers play their first exhibition game tomorrow at Montpelier's Recreation Field on Elm Street at 5 o'clock. Commentator and Executive Director of the Vermont Humanities Council Peter Gilbert has some thoughts about the poetry of pitching.

(GILBERT) Baseball season is definitely underway -- not so much a game, it seems, as a mindset, a way of life - even, for some, a religion. The American poet Robert Francis, who lived from 1901 to 1987, wrote a charming poem entitled, "The Pitcher." It's about how a pitcher wants to mislead the batter. More accurately, he wants the batter to understand, but only when it's too late. Pitching, the poet says, is an art: it involves technique and passion. And it is, above all, subtle - nuanced -- because the difference between one kind of pitch and another, between a ball and a strike, is ever so slight.

That nuance is suggested in the poet's using two words side by side that are almost identical in meaning and sound - errant, with an "e" and arrant, with an "a". An errant pitch - with an "e" - is one that is wrong, that deviates from the regular course, that wanders. An arrant pitch - with an "a" - means the same thing, but it's worse - even notorious - a really wild pitch. The difference between the two? No more than a slight vowel change.

Here's Robert Francis's ten-line poem, "The Pitcher."

His art is eccentricity, his aim
How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at,
His passion how to avoid the obvious,
His technique how to vary the avoidance.

The others throw to be comprehended. He
Throws to be a moment misunderstood.
Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,
But every seeming aberration willed.

Not to, yet still, still to communicate
Making the batter understand too late.

Now, make no mistake: this is a poem about baseball. But any time you have a poet talking about someone being an artist, you can be pretty sure he's talking about poetry as well. The words he uses relate to poetry at least as much as to baseball: eccentricity, passion, technique, being comprehended, being for a moment misunderstood, communicating, avoiding the obvious, not hitting the mark he seems to aim at.

A poet doesn't want to mislead a reader, like a pitcher wants to mislead the batter. But, as Robert Frost once said, poetry is the one acceptable way to say one thing and mean another. Moreover, like a pitcher, a poet doesn't want to be obvious - to hit you over the head with a message, cliché, or symbol. Poets, too, use nuance - the subtly of language - the connotation of words -- to hit the mark. And poets want to avoid the clickity-clack of doggerel verse, with its unerring, predictable meter and rhyme. Frost spoke, for example, of liking the straight crookedness of a good walking stick.

This is only to show what every fan of America's pastime already knows: that there's artistry in baseball - even poetry.


Note: "The Pitcher" is from The Orb Weaver, copyright 1960 by Robert Francis. Used by permission of Wesleyan University Press.


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