The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“At the Ball Game” is a short poem in free verse, its thirty-six lines divided into eighteen stanzas of two lines apiece. The title suggests events occurring at a traditional American pastime, a baseball game; its function, however, is darker, as what actually happens at the ball game shows a side of the American character that most people would prefer to keep hidden.

The poem is written in a third-person dramatic style, with the narrator commenting on the mood of the crowd as it watches the game and observes individuals in its midst. One never enters directly into the mind of anyone in the crowd, but one sees from this more objective perspective how quickly normal spectators can be transformed into a snarling pack.

“At the Ball Game” begins with a scene that most Americans will recognize: a crowd at a game existing for one purpose only—to delight in the beauty of “the exciting detail/ of the chase/ and the escape” (lines 5-7). The crowd, described with the personal third-person plural “they” and “them,” may be witnessing a runner racing to first base; it may be witnessing an “error/ flash of genius” (lines 7-8) that either helps the runner reach base safely or sees him put out in the nick of time. It is of no real consequence to the crowd or poet whether the runner is “out” or “safe” ultimately; they simply want to see athletic prowess—the skill and grace of players enjoying and excelling in their sport....

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Since the poem is in free verse, it avoids many obvious devices. The two most obvious literary devices used in “At the Ball Game” are the images of the crowd and game—suggested by the way Williams phrases what are rather ordinary, colorless words—and the extended metaphor of the crowd itself representing any group of people that can shift its temper suddenly and drastically.

Though one must read to the end of the poem to determine exactly the sport being played (baseball being the dominant American sport played during the summer solstice), one can from the beginning imagine the scene of an enthusiastic crowd at a sporting event, sitting in a large stadium, thanks to Williams’s suggestive diction. Although Williams never names the sport, his brief mentioning of the “chase,” “escape,” “error,” and “flash of genius” helps one imagine various scenarios: a base runner caught in a run-down; a runner from third base trying to beat the throw from the outfield home; an error made as the outfielder bobbles the ball, or as the short-stop allows a ground ball to pass between his legs; or the “genius” of the runner eluding the tag from the catcher. These are a few of the possibilities regarding baseball that a few well-chosen words might cause one to imagine.

Just as one imagines these scenes and the crowd’s exclamations of joy and delight, so might one imagine the ugly stares or verbal swipes of the crowd toward the...

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(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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