Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“At the Ball Game” is a perfect example of Williams’s desire to create a new kind of poetry. In keeping with other writers of the modernist period (roughly from the 1890’s to the 1940’s), Williams equates style with meaning: The way he structures the poem is integral to what he wants to say through the poem.
For example, just as the crowd changes with no warning from delighting in beauty to jeering at its own members, so the poem, with its lack of punctuation and refusal to end a thought at the end of a line, keeps the reader from reaching a full stop until the very last line. The reader thereby witnesses the abrupt transformations as they occur; he or she sees the crowd go from a “uniform beauty” to a deadly and terrifying “Inquisition” in a matter of seconds.
In this way, “At the Ball Game” strongly resembles Williams’s well-known poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.” The theme and style of “At the Ball Game” are dependent on the crowd, and what seems so simple at first becomes complicated by the end. For example, in reading the lines “So in detail they, the crowd,/ are beautiful/ for this/ to be warned against” (lines 11-14), one sees the continuation from line to line of a thought that instead of simply completing itself, transforms itself into something unexpected, challenging, and quite the opposite of where the thought started. The crowd’s momentary beauty lulls one into perceiving what is only partially true; the reader is “warned” that the beauty of the crowd may be one’s undoing—then, before one fully digests the warning, one discovers how transitory that beauty really is.
This transformation of seemingly continuous thoughts should then cause the reader to ask the central question: How can such an appreciation of skill and beauty coexist with such an abusive intolerance? Given America’s internal conflicts and contradictions, however, Williams might ask, Why be so startled? It is perfectly normal, like a day at the ball game. The crowd, then, is simply like the whole of the American people. It is also like a poem: It may seem easy to read, but it may be quite difficult and even dangerous to comprehend.