Note: I only have a small number of ideas about poetry which are actually worth sharing. A handful of ideas — which may or may not even be original — does not a blog make, so I have to dole them out in small portions, with a whole lot of filler in between. These meaningful posts are conveniently labeled “Golden Nugget Posts,” named after my first car (a gold ’82 Chevy stationwagon). This is one such post.
When I was in high school I had a t-shirt that said “Baseball Is Life.” Taken literally, even as a teenager, that statement was a little depressing. As a metaphor, I was never quite sure what it meant: That even the best strike out more often than they hit homeruns? That no matter what we do, we’re all trying to make it home? Still, I wore that shirt with pride under my maroon mesh jersey (#25 for Mark McGuire, before the ‘roids).
Being in the poetry business, you can’t help but think about the nature of the poetry business – the process of constantly submitting, being rejected, getting things published, competing with yourself at the same time as you’re competing with others for little more than the joy of it. Being obsessed with baseball for much of my life, I can’t help but compare the poetry business to sports.
One of the things that bothers me is how offended some people get when their work is rejected. I have to send out over a hundred rejection letters every week, and no matter how delicately I phrase things, no matter how honest and sympathetic I actually am, at least a handful of people will write back angry. Most people approach submissions as if there’s no doubt their work deserves to be published, as if every rejection is an editor dropping the ball, is proof of inattention or bias. Every amateur thinks they’re a pro.
At first glance this seems like human nature. But then I think of baseball. Including the minor leagues, there are about 10,000 professional baseball players in this country at any given time. I have no idea how many amateurs are playing recreationally, how many kids there are in little league, how many parents playing catch – but it has to be tens of millions. Do any of them think that if they’d stepped into the batter’s box against Roger Clemens they’d hit a homerun? No one’s that naïve.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. For generations people have been marveling at these monstrous men throwing cowhide 100 miles an hour, hitting moonshots into the stands – that doesn’t make the local batting cage any less fun. We’d all love to face a major league pitcher sometime, to swing with our eyes closed and hope. Why isn’t that enough for a poet? Why can’t we marvel at Li-Young Lee and have fun writing a little lyric in our backyard? Why can’t we send that poem off for fun, and still be happy if we don’t make contact?
You might say that in writing a poem, we’re exposing our very soul – a rejection is a rejection of one’s own existence. But for a lot of people, baseball really is life.
There’s a guy I see every time I go to the park. He’s almost 40, works at the mail room at Universal Studios, and has no desire to climb that ladder any higher. He plays baseball almost every day; sleeps and eats baseball. Pays league dues over and over again just to be on a team. No recognition, no prize at the end of the season. He does it because he loves it. And he’s not the only one.
So why the difference? There are probably a lot of reasons. It might be that the amateur/pro line is much more blurry in poetry. Baseball players have bodyguards, a fenced-off path to the team bus. You see them play on national television; they sit on David Letterman’s couch. Even the greatest poets don’t get that kind of treatment, and if you’re patient enough with your own poetry, someone will publish you.
Or maybe it’s just that poetry is much more subjective. My fastball tops at 70mph. Who knows how good our poems are.
I don’t think we should let that keep us from playing for the simple love of the game.
So I’m wondering: Do they make t-shirts that say “Poetry Is Life”? Would you wear one if they did?