Sunday Poetry: The Night Game, by Robert Pinsky

The Night Game

Some of us believe
We would have conceived romantic
Love out of our own passions
With no precedents,
Without songs and poetry–
Or have invented poetry and music
As a comb of cells for the honey.

Shaped by ignorance,
A succession of new worlds,
Congruities improvised by
Immigrants or children.

I once thought most people were Italian,
Jewish or Colored.
To be white and called
Something like Ed Ford
Seemed aristocratic,
A rare distinction.

Possibly I believed only gentiles
And blonds could be left-handed.

Already famous
After one year in the majors,
Whitey Ford was drafted by the Army
To play ball in the flannels
Of the Signal Corps, stationed
In Long Branch, New Jersey.

A night game, the silver potion
Of the lights, his pink skin
Shining like a burn.

Never a player
I liked or hated: a Yankee,
A mere success.

But white the chalked-off lines
In the grass, white and green
The immaculate uniform,
And white the unpigmented
Halo of his hair
When he shifted his cap:

So ordinary and distinct,
So close up, that I felt
As if I could have made him up,
Imagined him as I imagined

The ball, a scintilla
High in the black backdrop
Of the sky. Tight red stitches.
Rawlings. The bleached

Horsehide white: the color

Of nothing. Color of the past
And of the future, of the movie screen
At rest and of blank paper.

“I could have.” The mind. The black
Backdrop, the white
Fly picked out by the towering
Lights. A few years later

On a blanket in the grass
By the same river
A girl and I came into
Being together
To the faint muttering
Of unthinkable
Troubadours and radios

The emerald
Theater, the night.
Another time,
I devised a left-hander
Even more gifted
Than Whitey Ford: A Dodger.
People were amazed by him.
Once, when he was young,
He refused to pitch on Yom Kippur.

by Robert Pinsky

There is so much to love in this poem – so much to engage people of all interests. It’s a wonder this poem is not an icon of our world – quoted like Caddy Shack, Animal House or Monty Python by people in all stations. It touches upon romantic love, the importance of success, and, most importantly, baseball.

The poem begins with a slap in the face – it points out the absurdity of thinking that our approach to romantic love could be devised out of whole cloth. We owe so much of what we think and how we behave to precedent – to what society tells and shows us to be the ideal. Poetry, courtly love, even music – we think of these things as somehow inherent in the human condition. Instead, they are human traditions – an accident of history, and an invention of generations.

And then it shifts its attention to Whitey Ford – a dominating pitcher who played in an era recent enough that many readers could remember him. (I never saw him, but he was younger than my mother.) Whitey becomes a monument of caucasianism in the hands of Pinksy, and his overwhelming whiteness becomes a foil to life itself. White is the color of blank paper, while the speaker rolls in the grass with a girl, accompanied by the songs of the troubadors who helped establish the traditions of romantic love.

But tradition and academic discussion of courtly traditions pale in the bright light of baseball. As I write this, the Yankees lead the Phillies in the World Series. Pinsky shows a healthy dose of anti-Yankee sentiment with his dismissal of Ford –

Never a player
I liked or hated: a Yankee,
A mere success

A Yankee – a mere success? In those three lines, Pinsky captures the “so what?” attitude so many of us have toward the Yankees. Given the size of their payroll, given the tradition of Yankee baseball, given the paid-for expectations of the Yankee machine, there is a certain lack of drama in Yankee success.

Pinsky speaks against the elite. In his mind, he invents a Jewish version of Whitey Ford, who refused to play on Yom Kippur (a subtle reference to Hank Greenberg – not a pitcher, and not a Dodger, but a Jew who starred for the Detroit Tigers and refused to play during on Yom Kippur, even though his team was in a pennant race). His feat of imagination had already been loosely created in reality, just as his romantic conquest had been anticipated by generations of courtly lovers.

It’s wonderful to find baseball in poetry. It’s wonderful to find poetry in baseball. Somehow, having the Yankees in the World Series seems kind of reassuringly traditional.

UPDATE: I’m horrified! The reference to the Jewish left-handed Dodger who refused to play on Yom Kippur was not a reference to Hank Greenberg, it was a reference the amazing Sandy Koufax, a Jewish left-handed Dodger who refused to play on Yom Kippur. Pinsky even served as the voice on a book on tape version of a biography of Sandy Koufax.

5 Responses to “Sunday Poetry: The Night Game, by Robert Pinsky”

  1. Jodi says:

    Not Koufax (lefty Dodger, refused to pitch on Yom Kippur)?

  2. Dan says:

    How spectacularly embarrassing!! I'll correct it tonight – I don't know how I could have failed to think of Koufax!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hello from Russia!
    Can I quote a post "No teme" in your blog with the link to you?

  4. Dan says:

    of course . . .

  5. CecilC says:

    Sandy Koufax: To see him pitch was to witness that particular art in its highest form. He was amazing.

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