Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” for National Poetry Month

Here’s an old American joke I recall.

“No one knows the words to the second verse of the National Anthem.”

“Sure they do.”

“Oh? What’s the second verse then?”

“Play ball!”*

We continue our celebration of National Poetry Month while tipping our hat to American Baseball’s Opening Day. Marianne Moore’s poem “Poetry”  seemed fitting, not just because she was a lifelong baseball fan, but because this poem of hers always seemed to me to be American poetry’s National Anthem. Like our constitution’s “More perfect union” the overall thrust of the poem is that a real, complete poetry is still a goal, still in process, and so in the meanwhile it’s OK to snub poetry’s failures, but to pass the time, OK too to enjoy its at bats anyway.

Partway through the poem Moore explicitly calls up a baseball metaphor:

the base —
ball fan, the statistician—case after case
could be cited”

Here’s today’s lyric video. Baseball has Blue Jays, Cardinals, and Orioles. Why not Cockatoos?

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Moore has already given us the choice to “Not admire what we cannot understand,” but my estimate of what she’s getting at there is that hitting a baseball effectively at a major league level is extraordinarily difficult. The very best players ever to play over more than a century fail to do it about two-thirds of the time over a career. Careful records have been kept. Fans know this is so. Poetry too may be a sublime effort to try to hit the implausible cleanly to land in the improbable place.

It’s become a common observation that baseball has diminished popularity because of this, because one needs to endure so much failure and not-quite to get to the aim of the game. Perhaps poetry can commiserate.

Here’s hoping my home team’s opening-day rookie pitcher can throw implausible stuff this week. Gnomic fastballs. Hermetic curves. Enjambed change-ups. Surreal sliders. Let the opposing bards wave their wands and form nothing but wind, and all their strokes come up trite and merely sentimental. Let their bats hang upside down, asleep.

This performance from our archives has vocals recorded in 2018 by the then members of the Lake Street Writers Group: Dave Moore, Ethna McKiernan, and Kevin FitzPatrick. Two-thirds of that lineup have been called up to another league since then, the one where we have no statisticians or toads — you may have read our memorial pieces to them here this winter. And now it’s spring, even if we don’t understand. How can we admire what we cannot understand?

Three strikes and you’re out, but three ways to hear this performance. There’s a graphical player below for some of you, and if you don’t see that, this highlighted link. And if you want to see the lyric video that I just made that is part of the series of those I’m doing for National Poetry Month, that’s above.

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*Joke footnotes — they always add so much to the humor — but I know we have a lot of foreign readers. American baseball games traditionally start with a singing of the National Anthem. Yes, just the first verse. Patriotism, but in a measured dose there. After which, the head umpire announces the commencement of the game with the cry of “Play ball!”

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