Heroes in trouble

My baseball-playing-son’s choice of “Casey at the Bat” for school recitation made sense. I noticed in his practice sessions that he read the line “Kill the umpire!” with intense personal feeling; he tossed off “That ain’t my style” a little less confidently, but he clearly aspires to such flair. We had fun looking up the slang in “The former was a lulu and the latter was a cake.” It turns out that he didn’t even have to choose a poem for this three-minute speech: he elected to, he said, “because my mom is a poet.” His next public speaking assignment is to memorize and recite a poem of at least twelve lines. I thought maybe “Invictus,” but he said no, a funny one; he was disappointed that Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” wasn’t long enough. Out of the sheaf I presented as possibilities he chose Stevie Smith’s cheerful song about cruel loneliness and death, “Not Waving but Drowning.”

Both Thayer’s poem and Smith’s are about solitary men set against what Sylvia Plath calls “peanut-crunching crowds.” Five thousand fans in Mudville cheer in unison for arrogant Casey; Smith’s drowned man moans about being misunderstood while obtuse beachgoers exclaim, “Poor chap, he always loved larking / And now he’s dead.” Cameron loves brainy, wise-cracking heroes in the movies he watches and he books he devours, but seems to understand that even stars strike out and Holmes doesn’t always find his Watson. The boy is way too clear-eyed, in short, so I hope he keeps that dark, dark sense of humor.

As he mumbles rhymes under his breath, I’m revising essays about poetry and community and once again feeling the perversity of the whole project. In Cameron’s recitation pieces, crowds are either alarming or wilfully stupid. Dickinson’s “admiring bog” isn’t a club you’d want to join, either. Remember how John Stuart Mill described lyric poetry as utterance overheard? Dickinson’s poem, like many others, performs privacy: I sort of really hope somebody might be listening, but I’m over here pretending I’m talking to myself, so don’t bother me. Poetry is a funny way to be sociable, even when there’s a substantial readership or listening audience at hand. It’s a mode of conversation, yes, but incredibly slow and indirect, less like mailing letters than broadcasting greetings to hypothetical space aliens.

Of course, producing scholarship about poems may be even crazier if conversation is something you care about. This is why I’m now plotting a more narrative approach to this poetry and community project—wondering if I can write a book informed by research but driven by reflections about process, and possibly the story of why I’m interested, as much as by argument. What I need to decide before I pick up speed, though, is who would read this imaginary book and what they would want from it. The nature of the crowd, I guess, and what its taste in peanuts might be.

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