April 10, 2017

Pace University’s Poet-in-Residence, Charles North, author of fourteen well-respected and serious (but quite funny) books of poetry and two books of criticism, with three more books coming out this year, may be best known outside of the tight inner circle of poets (and its outer circle, the readers of contemporary verse) for his slender 2009 collection Complete Lineups, which is exactly what it sounds like, poems consisting of baseball batting orders.

There is a certain elegance to the batting order, as a form in itself, that most baseball fans have tried their hand at composing. Write down the last name of your team’s best leadoff hitter and affix his defensive position to that name, and you are one-ninth of the way to completing a masterful composition that your team’s manager struggles to fill out on a daily basis. Other players suggest themselves in various slots and positions, while yet others, not often chosen by your team’s manager to bat and field where you think they belong, seem to you to go precisely where you’ve put them.  An exercise in strategy that precedes every game, it is, some say, the heaviest lifting a manager will do on any given day, selecting delicately that game’s players, and where they will bat, and which position they will play. Managers have been known to spend hours filling out, and crumpling up, and filling out again lineup card after lineup card, finally handing in to the chief umpire the best of their efforts, still wondering if the choices they’ve settled on, after hours of struggle, are sufficient to the task.

That pretty much describes the poet’s work as well: having ideas, drafting and redrafting, scratching out the first few lines, shifting lines from the middle of the page to the top, and back again, crossing out a word or two, substituting others, inserting a stanza or a line in between two images that had formerly seemed perfectly yoked, trying to put the best words in the best order, as Samuel Coleridge once defined poetry—and sometimes, rarely, inspiration will create an entire page, the first rough draft of which will serve as final product, untouched by revision or self-doubt. More often, though, the best words, like a manager’s best players, will not reveal themselves, and the truly best order will require cogitation of a trained and studious mind.

The inspiration of Complete Lineups, however, derives not from North’s deciding to bat Marty Barrett leadoff and Fred Lynn second (North is a longtime Red Sox fan, though he pays attention to the Mets, too), but from his deciding to arrange, at least in theory, everything in the world into batting orders, and to have each somehow convincing (whether or not anyone could give a clear reason, or even agree on the choices).  Among the lineups he initially came up with were vegetables, cities, and parts of the body. Here is the "Cities" lineup:


San Francisco  ss

            Munich           cf

            Paris                lf

            Rome               c

            Madrid           3b

London           rf

            Athens            1b

Istanbul           2b

            New York         p


This is the first poem to appear in Complete Lineups, and I had to put the book down after reading this poem, to contemplate its significance. It’s not that the book itself is very heavy—the title Complete Lineups is North’s wry comment on how spare each poem necessarily is, and how few there are in the 70-page volume, the first section of which was self-published in a chapbook in 1972, and other parts of which appeared from time to time in poetry magazines—but I needed to think: what is there about Rome that makes it the cleanup hitter among the world’s great cities? The grandeur? The chaotic lanes of traffic? The ancient stateliness? And why is Rome that rarity, a power-hitting catcher?  And is Munich really a speedy center-fielder batting near (but not at) the top of the order?  Every slot, every position, made me reconsider my memories, or my impressions, of each city, and what North was saying about each one.

"Saying," of course, but not saying.  In suggesting, however imaginatively, that everything might take its place via coordinates of batting order and field position, he was taking a somewhat outrageous poetry idea and running with it, the way the French poet Rimbaud presented the "origins" of the five vowels in his famous poem "Voyelles": imaginative, irrational (or non-rational), proceeding by associations more than thought. To a baseball fan, each choice conveys volumes about the player who fills that slot and that position, and often a personality and an attitude as well. Look at the function that "Bathroom," playing shortstop, implies in North’s lineup poem about rooms of the house:

            Patio               2b

            Bathroom        ss

            Dining Room  cf

            Living Room  1b

            Bedroom         3b

            Foyer               lf

            Hall                  rf

            Garage              c

            Kitchen             p


Shortstop, in this lineup, unlike the previous one where San Francisco led off glamorously at the position, now fills the less glamorous role of moving the leadoff batter along with a humble groundball to the right side, as befits the lowly but essential Bathroom. This shortstop-playing Bathroom is no heavy hitter, but a reliable one who understands his duties (so to speak) and knows that everyone depends on his functionality, without which the entire rest of the lineup will collapse. If your bathroom ceases to function, after all, do you even have a house anymore? No, you have a place that can be occupied for a few hours maybe, but to live in a house you need a bathroom to perform its job, however grungy or inelegant or tiny it may be.

And here we also have a more traditional role being played by the Garage, batting eighth. Plainly this Garage is not being asked here to provide much offensive fire-power but simply to provide defense and on-field leadership—in this slot, if an at-bat comes up late in a close game with crucial men on base, the Garage will be asked to bunt, as a pinch-hitter for the pitcher steps into the on-deck circle, or even be pinch-hit for itself, while the more exciting rooms, the most elaborately furnished and appointed, are batting in the number 3 and 4 slot, playing centerfield and first base, the Dining Room and the Living Room. When guests come to your house, after all, these are the two rooms you want everyone to notice and to spend their time observing closely. They are the Mays and McCovey, the Snider and Hodges, of any home.

And why is New York the pitcher of cities, and the Kitchen the pitcher of the rooms? I don’t really want to continue supplying my own subjective (if logical) reasons for associating North’s choices with the roles he assigns to them, but rather to let the reader wonder about North’s reasoning (or intuitions or associations) himself, which is the pleasure of reading these poems.

Similarly unspoken are the choices that North does not make: he opts to leave "Los Angeles" and "Moscow" sitting on his bench, and a reader may well contemplate the logic behind that. Is Los Angeles perhaps another pitcher, resting up for its start in a few days? Is Moscow a platooning outfielder, or a heavy-legged pinch-hitter?  Why is the Den not in North’s starting lineup?  Where, for that matter, is Broccoli in this starting lineup?


            Carrots (raw)              2b

            Beans                          rf

            Tomatoes                     lf

            Potatoes                        c

            Eggplant                     1b

            Brussels Sprouts         ss

            Spinach                       cf

            Squash                        3b

            Lettuce                         p


You can envision a whole benchful of unnamed vegetables, and cities, and rooms, that North has deemed unworthy of inclusion, and say to yourself "Hmmphh, I’d give that one a shot—very underrated by this manager, in my opinion," or you may bow to North’s wisdom in choosing his players as he does. In a short "commentary" included in the book, North states: "The individual items that compose the lineups don’t, or don’t invariably, represent endorsements.  They are as often as not the given, the state of the world—at least the way it seemed to me at the time I was writing—although clearly my own experiences and tastes got into  the selection process on some level." Sometimes there is a minimal bench, as in the months of the year, of which North has chosen nine to form a starting lineup and left the other three on his bench. (I’ll leave it to you to imagine which months make the starting team, and where they play the field and bat in the lineup.) Or is the months’ bench filled with other culture’s nomenclatures, the Brumaire and Frimaire of the French revolutionary calendrier républicain, and the months of the Hebrew or Zoroastrian calendars, all unready to start in the big leagues?

These poems cause a reader to think, which is (in my view) one of the most important ends of poetry. Certainly, they cause this baseball fan to think, probably too much for my own good.  I have strong feelings on what a proper baseball batting order should look like, what one too often for my tastes does look like, and my own strong views on cities, vegetables, rooms, and all the rest of North’s subjects, so I am compelled to think along with him, and question his decisions, and argue inside my head with him, and end up seeing his point as often as not. For me, that’s the great fun, and kind of the point, of reading in general, arguing with and agreeing with and holding silent conversations with authors—to me, that sort of defines "reading."

It’s possible for even a non-fan to appreciate these poems. (North tells about one such reader, decidedly not a baseball fan, who found these poems evocative and charming despite her mystification by the selection and the ordering of the items in each line, as well as thoroughly confused by the mysterious abbreviations following each one.) But a true fan of the game can connect best with North’s thinking: 40-odd years ago, the first few of these poems were reprinted in a sports column, Larry Merchant’s column in the New York Post of April 24, 1973, and fans’ imitations of North’s poetic form were solicited, resulting in a second column featuring some of the many lineups submitted.

As North explained to Merchant, the idea originated in a lineup of British poets he invented as a joke gift to a friend who was hunting around for an English Ph. D. dissertation topic, the joke being that here was his dissertation, complete.  Alexander Pope played shortstop and led off because he would have drawn a lot of walks, standing as he did 4 foot 6, and because Pope "was as mean as Ty Cobb."

From there, North tried out other categories to write poems about, a sort of early-spring training of ideas, and printed the teams that came north in a slim mimeographed edition (now selling on Abebooks for as much as one of Bill’s early mimeo’d Abstracts) consisting of his first ten lineup poems (plus ten line drawings by his wife, Paula North, an illustrator and painter whose work, including her eight new full-color paintings, has continued to accompany the later editions of these poems, culminating with the deluxe "Complete" edition of 2009). In the decades since, he has written lineup poems about widely disparate categories such as "Composers" and quotations (some quite long and complex) from writers and thinkers ranging from Flann O’Brien to Gertrude Stein to Big Jule (of Guys and Dolls fame), along with his epithalamion, or wedding poem, he composed in honor of his daughter’s nuptials, listing (and assigning slots and positions to, of course) a variety of great wedded couples, ranging from Romeo and Juliet to Venice and The Sea. (They are a DP combination, by the way—I’ll let you figure out which is the shortstop batting third and which the second baseman batting seventh.) Even when they’re difficult to figure out (I’ll admit the quotations have me puzzled) they are great fun to read, and as with the best of verse, let you teach yourself something you hadn’t quite realized before about something you had been familiar with.

When I got the chance to toss a few questions North’s way this winter, he was reluctant to analyze his own poems or his methods at length, pointing out quite sensibly that "with just about all poetry, too much analysis spoils the fun," but willing to indulge me with a few observations:

When asked if he approached these choices more rationally or more instinctually, he said, "I did think a lot about batting order and field position in re every ‘player’ I chose; so there is a rational aspect to it all.  But since it’s ultimately a wacky idea—I still think so, though I still find it interesting as poetry—it’s not entirely rational, and has to do as much with associations between qualities we associate with, say, batting fifth, or playing shortstop, and all sorts of areas of experience that have nothing to do with baseball." He went on to add, "Well, to be just a little more literary: when I say associations, I mean metaphorical transfers, which involve thought, feeling, images, etc.  And as I’ve said on a number of occasions, I wouldn’t expect other people’s associations—transfers of qualities from baseball to, e.g., diseases or tall people or famous couples, to be the same as mine. One of my own favorites, the ‘heavy hitters’ lineup, which takes famous players and arranges them out of normal batting order and field position (Ted Williams leads off and plays shortstop; Ty Cobb pitches and bats ninth)—sort of a second-order lineup—practically explodes the idea of a lineup altogether."

"I guess by interviewing you," I said, "I’m asking you, as Frost put it, to express yourself in worse language."

"Frost was no dope," North told me. "He also said poetry is what is lost in translation."

"I thought Merchant ruined the form, by the way," I said, "when he reproduced some of your poems minus the lineation [with the names and positions run together in prose, that is, rather than one name and its position on a separate line].  More than most, these poems require only one name and position per line, no?"

"I see your point, though it didn’t occur to me at the time," North said, adding, "and of course I forgive Merchant since, after he received the original pamphlet, from a stranger out of the blue, he phoned, and then devoted two separate Post columns to the lineups!"

"Do you continue to compose lineups?"

"Although the title Complete Lineups was partly a joke—it was a very small book—I did decide that I had done more than enough with the idea, so at least as far as I was concerned, they were ‘complete’," North said. "Shortly after the book was published, I discovered an old one (of jazz standards) which had unaccountably been omitted, and I published it in a poetry magazine.  Oh, I did do one other one of ‘Errata,’ where I actually changed some of the original ‘players,’ another ‘second-order’ idea.  But I haven’t written any others."

But other people have—not including Merchant’s readers, who sent in lineup poems by the bushel-ful, or Merchant himself, North is aware of some MFA students in poetry who’ve tried their hand at the form. But, as initially he told me, he hardly thinks of it as a poetic form in itself: "It’s interesting to me to hear that I invented a poetic form," he said. "Somehow I never think of it as a form (even though it has a form, is nothing if not replicable, and Bill Corbett, in his intro to Complete Lineups, calls it a form)….To me, from the start, it was more a new ‘poetry idea,’ a way of enlarging the range of what might qualify as a poem.  Also a way of undercutting some of the overseriousness (‘Poetry with a Capital P’) that prevailed in the  classroom when I was a graduate student in English, before I began writing poems myself. If it does constitute an invented form, I’m pretty sure it’s the only one I can lay claim to!" Then, upon reconsideration, he added, "Actually, I’ve been ‘accused’ of inventing at least one other form.  A couple of years ago I published a chapbook titled Translation, which consisted of my ‘translations’ of some of my own poems into English.  As with the lineups, I was inspired by what was, to me (at least at first) an outrageous poetry idea, and tried to make it work.  Is it a form?  I don’t know. "


Our interview then derailed, much more my fault than his, when I brought up the way our assumptions about lineup construction have begun to change (as we on BJOL have been discussing for these past few weeks).  Instead of discussing his work, in other words, we began to argue about baseball, a subject upon which I am capable of being obnoxious and highly opinionated and even disliked, like John Adams in 1776. (Now where, I wonder, would Adams fit into a "Founding Fathers" lineup? Once you read this book, everything becomes a baseball batting order.)  But no real need to probe more deeply into North’s mental processes in fashioning these poems, which speak eloquently for themselves, beyond the mild probing I’ve subjected him to here. They are delightful to read, even, I suspect, for those who aren’t normally great readers of verse. The best of them will get you thinking about their subjects in an entirely new way, and the more mystifying of them will stimulate you to think in ways you probably haven’t thought in for years, if ever.


I hope this exposure encourages some of you to read the poems themselves, which are available on Amazon et al., and even to send in your own attempts at composing your own lineup poems. I have a few I’d be willing to share, as well as some examples from Merchant’s readers from 1973, and from Merchant himself. (As you might guess from the year of Merchant’s column, one of his chosen subjects was Watergate figures, with Richard M. Nixon, of course, as his pitcher, for reasons that may be more than obvious. Is it too soon to speculate on who bats where in a Trump-administration lineup?) And although Charles North claims to be retired from this particular poetic form, and though he has published other poems about baseball (including "Prometheus at Fenway," about Carl Yastrzemski, and one called "Baseball as a Fact of Life," and another entitled "Tinkers to Evers to Randomness"), it—like all forms, from the sonnet to the pantoum to the villanelle-- remains without limit for future poets to attempt to match its originator’s matchless wit and style.


Not, however, I will warn you, quite as easy as it may seem.


COMMENTS (12 Comments, most recent shown first)

I amend my previous comment: pkkennedy and villageelliott win in my book - those actor lineups are perfect. I really like Mifune in right field. My favorite actor. The two DHs are perfect, Douglass in left..gems.
5:37 AM Apr 16th
I think pkkennedy wins, honestly. But here is my own modest effort:

LaoTze 2B
Parmenides 3B
Aristotle CF
Kant 1B
Marx LF
Hegel C
Plato RF
Marsilius of Padua SS
Socrates P

Jefferson SS
Adams 2B
Lincoln LF
Washington 1B
Kennedy RF
Madison 3B
Teddy Roosevelt C
Nixon P (spitballer)

5:35 AM Apr 16th
Geometry LF
Trigonometry SS
Diff EQ RF
Calculus 1B
Algebra 3B
Pre-Calc CF
Probability Theory C
Linear Algebra 2B
Statistics P

2:39 PM Apr 12th
Hip hop ss
Jazz 3b
Classical CF
Classic rock 2B
Metal C
R & B LF
Country. RF
Blues 1B
Sacred music P

Buddhism 3B
Protestantism. LF
Catholicism RF
Islam 1B
Hinduism CF
Shinto SS
Eastern Orthodoxy 2B
Confucianism C
Judaism P

This is freakin' addicting, man.
10:06 AM Apr 12th
Steven Goldleaf
According to Charles North (who's read and appreciated the kind words in these comments, as have I), Van Lingle Mungo makes an appearance in his poem of jazz standards, pitching and batting ninth.
3:32 PM Apr 11th

Mick Jones LF
Greg Lisher 2B
Brian May C
Peter Townsend 3B
Jimi Hendrix CF
Tony Iommi 1B
Dean Ween RF
Robert Fripp SS
John Flansburgh P

David Gilmour hits DH in A.L. parks
1:53 PM Apr 11th
Steven Goldleaf
OK, this one is subject to change by game-time:

Trump…… …
Spicer…… …..2B
Carson….. …..RF
Priebus…….... cf

9:34 AM Apr 11th
The article is worth the price of this year's subscription all by itself.

It also got me free-associating onto the subject of songs and verse based on names: Dave Frishberg's Van Lingle Mungo, Danny Kaye's account of a Dodger-Giant game (Hiller-Haller-Miller). Poetry is where you find it, I suppose.
7:32 AM Apr 11th

Two Lineups of Actors

Studio Era Team

Jimmy Cagney 2b

Bogie ss

Kirk Douglas lf

Paul Robeson cf

Burt Lancaster 1b

Charlton Heston rf

Robert Mitchum 3b

Spencer Tracy c

Jimmy Stewart p

The Duke DH

Post-Studio Era Team

Denzel Washington cf

Tishero Mifune rf

Clint Eastwood 3b

Bruce Willis 1b

Lee Marvin lf

Robert Redford ss

Paul Newman 2b

Robert Dinero c

James Garner p

Samuel Jackson Dh
3:16 AM Apr 11th
Thanks, Steven. Fun piece and fun exercise. I imagine we will be getting some mileage on this over in reader posts soon.
p.s. Seems to me Garage would be a DH in many places with temperate weather. Let's call those places the American League; and it would play a more important position in "National League" cities with extreme climates.
10:25 PM Apr 10th
McCartney ss
Lennon 2b
Waits 3b
Springsteen lf
Prine 1b
Van Zandt rf
Cohen c
Zevon cf
Dylan p
9:20 PM Apr 10th
These lineups are the greatest thing ever.
4:46 PM Apr 10th
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