Recently on the NPR website philosopher/aesthetician Alva Noë offered Robert Francis’s poem “The Pitcher” as a celebration of the start of a new baseball season—and, of course, to set up an opportunity to talk about one of his favorite subjects, art and our experience of it. Here’s the poem:
His art is eccentricity, his aim
How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at,
His passion how to avoid the obvious,
His technique how to vary the avoidance.
The others throw to be comprehended. He
Throws to be a moment misunderstood.
Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,
But every seeming aberration willed.
Not to, yet still, still to communicate,
Making the batter understand too late.
Noë points out how the poem highlights the pitcher’s paradoxical task: to throw a pitch that’s “hittable”—that is, in the strike zone—but to do so in a way that ensures the batter doesn’t hit it. The pitcher “Throws to be a moment misunderstood. / Yet not too much.”
To Noë, pitching is much like art. The artwork pitches us “unhittable hittables.” Noë stops with that suggestive phrase, choosing not to elaborate—pitching, perhaps, his own unhittable hittable.
Yet I’m intrigued by this analogy, specifically how it seemed to relate to comments and observations poets have made about their strange art of obliquity. For instance, what first came to mind when I read Francis’s poem was Wallace Stevens’s lines “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.”
I’m also struck by what’s unelaborated in this comparison, specifically the role of the batter, who would seem to be an analogue to the reader. What exactly is the reader doing in this scenario? It would seem that, if the poet-pitcher is pitching well, the reader-batter will swing and miss and eventually strike out.
The poet aims to strike out the reader? That doesn’t seem quite right. As Francis puts it in the final lines, the goal is “Not to, yet still, still to communicate. / Making the batter understand too late.” Note that this is the only couplet that fully rhymes. The rest of the poem’s couplets form varying degrees of partial rhyme—they’re “willed aberrations” that keep the reader off balance, in the manner of a good pitcher. The hiccup in the penultimate line, “Not to, yet still, still to communicate…” serves a similar purpose. So by the time we get to the final line, we’re probably no longer expecting it to rhyme. The poem rhyme scheme works like a curveball—it looks wild, but at the last second it bends into the strike zone. And most likely the reader-batter forgot to swing.
Does Francis’s “too late” mean that, sure, the reader struck out, but perhaps after the fact will sit back and appreciate just what the pitcher was doing, its nuance and subtlety? But that’s still unsatisfactory. It would certainly make poetry a boring ball game.
Yet I’m not ready to give up on this promising comparison just yet. On deck for the next post: John Ashbery on what it means to miss—
This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.