Book Review: The Museum of Clear Ideas
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.
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