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Books | Sports

April 2, 2007

Baseball in 17 Syllables or Less

Baseball's Poetry/Isn't Found in Limericks/Look to the Haiku

Carl Bialik

Cor van den Heuvel, a lifelong fan of the Red Sox, has been writing haiku for nearly half a century. His twin loves come together in Baseball Haiku, a collection of more than 200 haiku and senryu from American and Japanese poets.

Cor van den Heuvel/Photo by Bruce Kennedy
"What a haiku poet tries to do is make the rhythm unobtrusive. The important thing is to capture the image, the perception, the suggestion, and the feeling of the original."

Cor van den Heuvel/Photo by Bruce Kennedy

Mr. van den Heuvel, past-president of the Haiku Society of America, says that baseball lends itself better than other sports to the form, because of the game's intimate relationship with nature. In the following interview, edited for clarity, he quotes and analyzes some of his favorite baseball haiku, explains why the art form melds well with sabermetrics, and offers tips for getting the most from reading haiku. (Also, you can hear van den Heuvel and other baseball-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, April 4, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: What is it about haiku-senryu that lends itself so well to baseball?

Cor van den Heuvel: Haiku are poems that record a moment of awareness or keen perception of something in the natural world that somehow relates nature as a whole with human nature. Senryu record a moment of keen perception in the world of human actions which reveal something about human nature itself.
The world of nature is more evident in baseball than in any other team sport—baseball is played on grass and dirt under the open sky. Not only does the game take place on a field, but it extends into the sky with the flight of the ball. The interaction with the elements is crucial in baseball, whether it is a wind that the batters (and pitchers and fielders) have to take into consideration in deciding how to hit the ball (or pitch or field it) or the imminent threat of rain which may hold up the game or even postpone it, or the temperature, or the brightness of the sun, etc., etc. And so many different kinds of action take place in a baseball game—the game is so intricate and complex—that the game lends itself to a multitude of different kinds of reactions from the players. These can reveal aspects of human nature.
To give you a couple of examples, I will quote two of my poems, one a haiku and one a senryu:

summer afternoon
the long fly ball to center field
takes its time


This is a haiku. It relates us to the season of summer. The long flight of the ball reflects the longer days of that season. It also gives us a sense of a slow, lazy summer day at the ballpark that in turn connects us to the whole round of the seasons and thus to the world of nature itself.

conference on the mound
the pitcher looks down
at the ball in his hand


This is a senryu. It reveals something about human nature. I've observed this image many times in baseball games. When the pitcher gets into trouble, so much so that the manager, pitching coach, and catcher all gather around him, he suddenly seems more isolated and alone than when he is on the mound by himself. He often hesitates to look at the men who have come out to talk to him. Rather, he looks down at the ball in his hand or in his glove. All sorts of thoughts and feelings are probably going through his head—perhaps he feels the ball has betrayed him and gotten him into this spot or he may feel if he and the ball were only left to themselves they could get through this difficulty. Finally, it is just the pitcher and the ball and a feeling of loneliness is conveyed by this image—which is further intensified by the possibility that the pitcher may in a few minutes be asked to give up the ball and leave the game.

GM: Could there be such a collection about any other sport?

CvdH: I don't think so. Golf is played outdoors, but there is not enough variety. Similar stretches of field, hazards, and greens are played over and over with a repetition of similar strokes and strategies. I'm sure there are some good haiku written about golf, but I doubt if you could find a whole book of them. Recently a small book called Hockey Haiku was published, but it turned out to be a joke. The history of "hockey haiku" and the poets and the haiku in the book were all made up by the two editors, who must have had great fun doing it. But you would be hard pressed to find a decent haiku in it. Football and soccer are played outdoors, but again there is not the variety of interaction with nature nor the variety of situations you find in baseball. I do quote a good haiku about football by Jack Kerouac in my introduction to the book and I've written a few myself. But are there enough around for a whole book? Again, I don't think so. Not yet, anyhow.

GM: What is your single favorite piece from the collection?

CvdH: I have many favorites. One is by Dan McCullough:

staring in
the closer shakes off
the rain


GM: Is it challenging to translate haiku, and yet preserve the rhythm?

CvdH: I didn't concern myself with trying to preserve the rhythm. Japanese and English are so different that they create different rhythms simply from the sounds of the words and the way the syntax varies. What a haiku poet tries to do is make the rhythm unobtrusive. The language should sound natural and not call attention to itself. The important thing is to capture the image, the perception, the suggestion, and the feeling of the original. You should see through the words to the reality they help create in the mind of a sensitive reader. Some readers are not wired for haiku. They see only a banal group of words. Their minds don't know how to tap into the suggestive power words have in a haiku. Of course, this is usually a result of ignorance and a failure to make the effort to understand how a haiku works.

GM: You'll be appearing at Varsity Letters with two baseball-stats gurus. Does the haiku tradition fit comfortably alongside this new strain of baseball analysis and writing?

CvdH: I don't see any reason why anyone interested in any aspect of baseball, including its statistics and analysis, should not be able to appreciate baseball haiku. See the following haiku/senryu by Ed Markowski:

box scores
the taste
of a breakfast sausage

You can hear van den Heuvel and other baseball-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, April 4, in New York's Lower East Side.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.







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- Sports
- posted on Apr 25, 08
scott alefosio

can you write a haiku about this exciting NBA playoffs.


Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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