Donald Hall,America's new poet laureate, is a bearded, sagely fellow and a trifle unkempt,just what a poet would look like if he were chosen by central casting. His newtitle, actually bestowed upon him by the Librarian of Congress on June 14, isby far the best thing that can happen to a poet. It brings a rare blast ofprestige and an even rarer infusion of cash: a one-time award of $35,000, morethan most poets earn from a lifetime of versifying. Nonetheless, as Hall stepsout onto the porch of Eagle Pond Farm--the idyllic, inspirational homestead inrural New Hampshire that his family has owned since the Civil War--he gazes upat the sky with a look that seems both unsatisfied and uneasy.
Is he contemplatingpoesy's precarious place in modern literature or, perhaps, nature's benignindifference to human suffering? Not quite. "The Red Sox game starts atseven o'clock tonight," he says, his eyes straining into the gatheringsilver clouds above. Then he adds ominously, "That is, unless itrains."
The new poetlaureate is a baseball fan, and no ordinary fan at that. His love of the sportis complicated and many-layered, as befits a man of letters. To begin with, hesays, "baseball is my walk in the park," by which he means his escapefrom the lonely, stressful job of writing. At times it is also his inspiration,for "there's much about baseball that I find poetical."
Baseball has oftenbeen Hall's meal ticket as well. His prose (always more lucrative than poetry)has appeared in The New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement and once evenin SI. It has also been collected in a widely acclaimed book called FathersPlaying Catch with Sons. His most interesting and ambitious baseballpoem--which he gave the misleadingly simple title of Baseball--is a work ofnine parts, or "innings," each containing nine stanzas, each stanzacontaining nine lines, and each line containing nine syllables. It can be foundin a new anthology of Hall's work called White Apples and the Taste of Stone(Houghton Mifflin).
Hall began hisbaseball life as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan--an improbable development for such athorough New Englander, one he blames on the seductive broadcasts ofsilver-throated Red Barber, whom he listened to while growing up inConnecticut. But Hall's summers were spent working in the New Hampshire hayfields of Eagle Pond under the supervision of his grandfather, who worshipedthe Red Sox. "We came to an agreement," Hall says. "The Dodgerswould be his National League team; the Red Sox, my American League team."When the Dodgers abandoned Brooklyn, Hall turned his devotion entirely to theRed Sox, and he now declares that he will remain "with the Sox until Idie."
Perhaps thegreatest baseball adventure of Hall's literary career occurred in 1973, when hewas invited to participate in spring training with the Pittsburgh Pirates.Never a gifted athlete, Hall was by then in his mid-40s and shaped like anopossum. But his ineptitude actually made him fairly popular with the players,who loved to gather around the cage to watch him take batting practice."Whenever I took a swing," he remembers with a fond smile, "theywould howl with laughter, as if I'd dropped my pants in a burlesquehouse."
As poet laureate,Hall says he is eager to do his part in the difficult task of popularizing hisart form, so SI asked him to name the five best baseball poems ever written.But the request seems to make him cranky. "Five?" he huffs. "Idon't know if there have been that many good baseball poems." Indeed, asidefrom Casey at the Bat (which his grandfather used to recite while milkingcows), he says, most attempts at baseball poetry are utterly lamentable.Marianne Moore was a fine poet who wrote about baseball with disastrousresults. William Carlos Williams wrote a decent poem called At the Ball Game,but it's "not necessarily kind to baseball fans," Hall says. MentionGregory Corso's Dream of a Baseball Star, and Hall replies with alarmingbluntness: "Not good." Grantland Rice's famous elegy for Babe Ruth?"Now that," he says, "is really terrible."
All of which leavesone baseball poet towering above the rest: Donald Hall. Asked if it is fair tocall him one of the greatest baseball poets of all time, Hall whoops withlaughter. "Yes, yes!" he says. "I have to admit that I am."
It's hard to imagine two pros more unalike than DonaldHall, the poet, and Dock Ellis (right), the pitcher who once wore curlers inthe Pirates' clubhouse. Nonetheless the two produced a fine book, Dock Ellis inthe Country of Baseball--even though Hall felt compelled to leave out one ofEllis's best stories. "The Pirates came into San Diego, and Dock went up toLos Angeles, where he knew, um, a lady," Hall recalls. "And he and thislady both took some acid that night. The next day Dock woke up and took somemore. He'd forgotten there was a doubleheader and that he was pitching in thesecond game. So he drove down to San Diego, walked into the clubhouse andhollered, 'Pills! I need pills.' Someone stuffed a bunch in his hand, and hetook them all, though he had no idea what they were. Then he went out and threwa no-hitter. True story. It's not in the first edition because, by that time,Dock was pitching for George Steinbrenner, who would not, I thought, haveapproved. But it's in the second edition."
PLAY BALL For Hall, here at his New Hampshire farm, baseball is an escape and an inspiration.
FRED KAPLAN (ELLIS)