Book Review: The Museum of Clear Ideas

Jeff · March 21, 2006 at 1:26 pm · Filed Under Book reviews, General baseball, Off-topic ranting 

T.S. Eliot once wrote that April is the cruelest month. Given that Eliot was the most British American ever conceived, it is unsurprising that he did not appreciate baseball’s approach. This despite being born in St. Louis and living during the era of Rogers Hornsby. Working on some poem is barely an excuse.

To the rest of us — poets, too — April means baseball. After reading Donald Hall’s vastly underappreciated 1993 work, Museum of Clear Ideas, I think Hall — one of the towering figures in American letters — would agree. The book of poems is a moving meditation on art, love, death and baseball, not necessarily in that order.

In Clear Ideas, Hall draws on themes from sport and visual art. The book’s first baseball poem is an attempt to explain baseball to Kurt Schwitters, the artist acknowledged as the 20th century master of the collage.

The volume isn’t all baseball, but the narrative of the game informs (and bookends) everything else. We start with a non-baseball poem (“Another Elegy,” which nevertheless alludes to rain delays), then move on to nine long baseball poems divided into nine poetic “innings”. Concluding, Hall offers three warm, darkly beautiful extra-inning baseball poems that are succinct and perfect, like black pearls.

Like Schwitters, Hall wraps seemingly unrelated elements into a package that works. And while any fan of poetry ought to enjoy the book, you might have to be a longstanding baseball fan to truly appreciate some of the wit here. Besides lines about storied games from yesteryear, there are references to Dock Ellis’ acid no-hitter, Wade Boggs’ affairs, Steve Blass disease, expansion and Nolan Ryan’s Advil ads.

To the poet, baseball is a pleasure (“Baseball is not my work. It is my/walk in the park, my pint of bitter,/My Agatha Christie or Zane Grey.”), but it also reflects the grand collage of life. Generations of young men become old men, barely hanging on as skills and vitality fade. Hall’s is a world where ” … even losing three out of four/is preferable to off-season,” as life is preferable to death.

Baseball, like sexual intercourse
and art, stops short, for a moment, the
indecent continuous motion
of time forward, implying our death
and imminent decomposition.

Being a Red Sox fan, Hall knows something about loss, death, hope and rebirth. Even if you win the Series, he reminds, the season ends anyway. Fortunately, there is still spring.

The Museum of Clear Ideas is a fantastic book by a gifted poet that happens to cover the national pastime. It would be worth reading if you didn’t know a double play from doublemint, or VORP from a vorpal blade going snicker-snack. Because you do, it’ll be all the better.

[Ed note: those are affiliate links. We recommend the book even if you go buy it some other way. Standard disclaimers apply.]


19 Responses to “Book Review: The Museum of Clear Ideas”

  1. dan@jackson on March 21st, 2006 1:55 pm

    Donald Hall is certainly one of my favorite poets.In addition I would recommend his collection “Without” that is concerned with his wife’s illness and final passing. (His wife was the well-regarded poet Jane Kenyon).

    Of course, he would bring up Dock Ellis. Hall co-authored Ellis’ memoir “Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball”,another very interesting book.

  2. Jeff on March 21st, 2006 1:59 pm

    Jane Kenyon is, along with Hall, one of my favorite poets. Her book “Otherwise” is spectacular, and yes, “Without” is well worth reading.

  3. Celadus on March 21st, 2006 2:20 pm

    In a biography of T. S. Eliot that I read a few years ago, I came across the astonishing information that Eliot was a practical joker and that one of the people he was most excited about meeting was Groucho Marx. As to the practical jokes, they were decidedly unsophisticated, literally including whoopee cushions. He also used to wear green makeup to parties. Quite the cut-up, that Thomas Sterns.

  4. msb on March 21st, 2006 3:16 pm

    in the fine collection “The Groucho Letters: Letters from and to Groucho Marx” (published in the ’60s) there is a section devoted to his correspondence with ‘Tom’ …

  5. dan@jackson on March 21st, 2006 6:16 pm

    You’ve sold me,Jeff.I’ve ordered the book. I’d note that Henry James is right up there as one of the most British Americans ever born as well. I dont think James was a Red Sox fan.

  6. davepaisley on March 21st, 2006 8:03 pm

    Let’s not forget that Eliot was the “inspiration” for the Lloyd-Webber musical Cats. No amount of baseball connections can overcome creating Rum Tum Tugger…

    Many of us Brits disown any and every connection whenever possible.

  7. Paul Covert on March 21st, 2006 9:31 pm

    or VORP from a vorpal blade going snicker-snack

    Awww, man… wish I’d thought of that one first. 🙂

  8. scraps on March 21st, 2006 10:32 pm

    Great book.

  9. BelaXadux on March 22nd, 2006 4:32 am

    None of my favorite poets, of which there are quite a few, had anything to say regarding baseball, and precious little on sports. No surprise, since few of them wrote in English or lived on this continent. Eliot’s _Four Quartets_ is just figgin’ outstanding, though, one of the best short texts on anything. If he’d written nothing else (and, well, he wrote too darned little else) he’d still be a major figure in English letters for that one, hard won text.

    I think about sports with one part of my mind—not the poetry part. If you want to come over to ‘the other side’ for a time, here are a few real sweeties:

    Geoffrey Hill, _The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy_ (Eliot, a generation later)
    Melissa Green, _The Squanicook Eclogues_ (’tisn’t baseball, but it IS New England, and she’s someone criminally underappreciated as a writer and a poet)
    Odysseas Elytis, _Eros, Eros, Eros_ (a selection of his work; what a genius)
    Nazim Hikmet, _Poems of Nazim Hikmet_, rev. ed. (what a great, great heart, and every line still relevant)
    Hafiz, _The Gift_, Daniel Ladinsky, ed. (extremely free translation, but beautiful and laughable readings that folks who don’t like poetry will love just like the rest of us)

  10. gwo on March 22nd, 2006 5:01 am

    Hall’s “Fathers Playing Catch With Sons (essays on sports [mostly baseball])” is extremely worth reading, too.

    When the tall puffy
    figure wearing number
    nine starts
    late for the fly ball,
    laboring forward
    like a lame truckhorse
    startled by a garter snake,
    — this old fellow
    whose body we remember
    as sleek and nervous
    as a filly’s —

    and barely catches it
    in his glove’s
    tip, we rise
    and applaud weeping:
    On a green field
    we observe the ruin
    of even the bravest
    body, as Odysseus
    wept to glimpse
    among the shades the shadow
    of Achilles

    — Old Timer’s Day, Fenway Park, 1 May 1982

  11. Choska on March 22nd, 2006 9:05 am

    This seems like a good time to add this:

    Casey at the Bat (First appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on June 3, 1888)
    by Ernest Lawrence Thayer

    The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
    The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
    And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
    A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

    A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
    Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
    They thought, “If only Casey could but get a whack at that—
    We’d put up even money now, with Casey at the bat.

    But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
    And the former was a hoodoo, while the latter was a cake;
    So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
    For there seemed but little chance of Casey getting to the bat.

    But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
    And Blake, the much despisèd, tore the cover off the ball;
    And when the dust had lifted, and men saw what had occurred,
    There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

    Then from five thousand throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
    It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
    It pounded on the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
    For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

    There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place;
    There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile lit Casey’s face.
    And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
    No stranger in the crowd could doubt ’twas Casey at the bat.

    Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
    Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt;
    Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
    Defiance flashed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip.

    And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
    And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
    Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped—
    “That ain’t my style,” said Casey. “Strike one!” the umpire said.

    From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar, Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore;
    “Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
    And it’s likely they’d have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

    With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
    He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
    He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the dun sphere flew;
    But Casey still ignored it and the umpire said, “Strike two!”

    “Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered “Fraud!”
    But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
    They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
    And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again.

    The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate,
    He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate;
    And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
    And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.

    Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
    The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
    And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
    But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.

    Here is a list of a few more that I found via Google

    How I Learned English
    -Gregory Djanikian
    A Personal History of the Curveball
    -Jonathan Holden
    Letter to Mantsch from Havre
    -Richard Hugo
    Adam’s Dad Teaches the Kids to Play Ball
    -Dorianne Laux
    Season Wish
    -Linda Mizejewski
    The Roundhouse Voices
    -Dave Smith

  12. Homer Runt on March 22nd, 2006 11:59 am

    I don’t exactly understand how Donald Hall’s work is ‘underappreciated’. He’s a relatively famous American poet whose credentials are prestigious (just Google him). I mean, buy any collection of contemporary American poetry and he’s in there. I think he also makes a living from writing too, which, alone, means he’s pretty damn successful.

  13. marbledog on March 22nd, 2006 12:24 pm

    “if you didn’t know … VORP from a vorpal blade going snicker-snack”

    now that made me laugh out loud.

  14. Jeff on March 22nd, 2006 3:04 pm

    I did not say Donald Hall was underappreciated. I said I read this book, which is “Donald Hall’s vastly underappreciated 1993 work.” This particular work is comparatively less well-known than Hall’s other stuff.

  15. Abodacious on March 22nd, 2006 8:38 pm

    All I can say is if very serious, morality-laden events are going on in your life, be careful if you try to read Prufrock….

  16. Arkinese on March 23rd, 2006 8:56 pm

    Hey, nice to see a discussion about baseball poetry, since I’m an English major about to graduate (in addition to a diehard baseball fan). I’m definitely going to have to check out Hall book. I would also recommend Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend: Women Writers on Baseball. It includes poetry from Marianne Moore, Shirley Jackson, Annie Dillard and one from Linda Kittell, a professor here at Wash. St. who loves baseball and poetry equally.

  17. Arkinese on March 23rd, 2006 8:56 pm

    Oh and I totally agree about Prufrock, Abodacious. It’s my favorite poem but I can only read it at certain times.

  18. DMZ on March 23rd, 2006 11:54 pm

    At Safeco Field the fans come and go
    Talking of plays by Ichiro

  19. Abodacious on March 26th, 2006 2:42 pm

    Do I dare attend a game
    When all my friends think I’m insane?

    Watching the Mariners, what have we found?
    Nausea overtakes us, and we drown

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