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Donald Hall, America's new poet laureate, is a bearded, sagely fellow and a trifle unkempt, just what a poet would look like if he were chosen by central casting. His new title, actually bestowed upon him by the Librarian of Congress on June 14, is by far the best thing that can happen to a poet. It brings a rare blast of prestige and an even rarer infusion of cash: a one-time award of $35,000, more than most poets earn from a lifetime of versifying. Nonetheless, as Hall steps out onto the porch of Eagle Pond Farm--the idyllic, inspirational homestead in rural New Hampshire that his family has owned since the Civil War--he gazes up at the sky with a look that seems both unsatisfied and uneasy.
Is he contemplating poesy's precarious place in modern literature or, perhaps, nature's benign indifference to human suffering? Not quite. "The Red Sox game starts at seven o'clock tonight," he says, his eyes straining into the gathering silver clouds above. Then he adds ominously, "That is, unless it rains."
The new poet laureate is a baseball fan, and no ordinary fan at that. His love of the sport is complicated and many-layered, as befits a man of letters. To begin with, he says, "baseball is my walk in the park," by which he means his escape from the lonely, stressful job of writing. At times it is also his inspiration, for "there's much about baseball that I find poetical."
Baseball has often been Hall's meal ticket as well. His prose (always more lucrative than poetry) has appeared in The New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement and once even in SI. It has also been collected in a widely acclaimed book called Fathers Playing Catch with Sons. His most interesting and ambitious baseball poem--which he gave the misleadingly simple title of Baseball--is a work of nine parts, or "innings," each containing nine stanzas, each stanza containing nine lines, and each line containing nine syllables. It can be found in a new anthology of Hall's work called White Apples and the Taste of Stone ( Houghton Mifflin).
Hall began his baseball life as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan--an improbable development for such a thorough New Englander, one he blames on the seductive broadcasts of silver-throated Red Barber, whom he listened to while growing up in Connecticut. But Hall's summers were spent working in the New Hampshire hay fields of Eagle Pond under the supervision of his grandfather, who worshiped the Red Sox. "We came to an agreement," Hall says. "The Dodgers would be his National League team; the Red Sox, my American League team." When the Dodgers abandoned Brooklyn, Hall turned his devotion entirely to the Red Sox, and he now declares that he will remain "with the Sox until I die."
Perhaps the greatest baseball adventure of Hall's literary career occurred in 1973, when he was invited to participate in spring training with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Never a gifted athlete, Hall was by then in his mid-40s and shaped like an opossum. But his ineptitude actually made him fairly popular with the players, who loved to gather around the cage to watch him take batting practice. "Whenever I took a swing," he remembers with a fond smile, "they would howl with laughter, as if I'd dropped my pants in a burlesque house."
As poet laureate, Hall says he is eager to do his part in the difficult task of popularizing his art form, so SI asked him to name the five best baseball poems ever written. But the request seems to make him cranky. "Five?" he huffs. "I don't know if there have been that many good baseball poems." Indeed, aside from Casey at the Bat (which his grandfather used to recite while milking cows), he says, most attempts at baseball poetry are utterly lamentable. Marianne Moore was a fine poet who wrote about baseball with disastrous results. William Carlos Williams wrote a decent poem called At the Ball Game, but it's "not necessarily kind to baseball fans," Hall says. Mention Gregory Corso's Dream of a Baseball Star, and Hall replies with alarming bluntness: "Not good." Grantland Rice's famous elegy for Babe Ruth? "Now that," he says, "is really terrible."
All of which leaves one baseball poet towering above the rest: Donald Hall. Asked if it is fair to call him one of the greatest baseball poets of all time, Hall whoops with laughter. "Yes, yes!" he says. "I have to admit that I am."