The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 561

“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.

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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.

The crowd, which was “moved uniformly” in the first two lines of the poem, is still described as being “beautifulin detail” in lines 11 and 12. Immediately afterward, still within the same sentence, William Carlos Williams darkens the scene. The “beautiful” crowd is now “to be warned against/ saluted, and defied.” The crowd is a potent force that can do more than appreciate the beauty of the game. What might it do in a lull in the action, or between innings, for example? What reverence or allegiance might it demand of those in its midst? Thus the crowd goes from being the protagonist of the piece to being the force of opposition.

In line 16, Williams changes his use of personal pronouns to the neuter “it”: “It is alive, venomous/ it smiles grimly.” “Its” force, moreover, is directed against those who traditionally stand out in the crowd: “The flashy female” and “the Jew” (lines 19 and 21). They are discussed, verbally abused with gossip or open jibes; they “get it straight,” and what they get from the crowd is reminiscent of “the Inquisition” and of a “Revolution” (lines 23 and 24) in which those who are different are swept away, put out of sight.

The poem ends by reminding the reader of the potential beauty still residing in the crowd, living “day by day in them/ idly” (lines 27 and 28). While the “power of their faces” (line 30) harbors great beauty, it also contains and is most willing to emit horrible abuse in the form of the stares they have given earlier to those they do not like. This is Williams’s final irony. In the summer solstice, at a normal gathering of fans at a ball game, people laugh and cheer “permanently, seriously” (line 35) at the same time that they ridicule and mentally attack others near them who simply want to enjoy the game and the summer day.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

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 overdressed young woman and the dark-skinned Jew who pass by, perhaps on their way to the restroom or concession stand, simply by the repetition of the otherwise vague phrase “they get it.” By contrast, though, Williams’s precise language enables the reader to see and hear the crowd turn into an unruly and crude mob through the use of the words “Inquisition” and “Revolution”—words that conjure more violent and threatening images of people being caught up in a mass frenzy.

The crowd as metaphor works equally as well to engender feelings of uneasiness within the reader—to keep the reader off-guard as to how he or she should feel about the crowd. Since most people have attended sporting contests, one knows how crowds can quickly go from being delighted to being ugly. Ideally, everyone is at the event for the same reason: to appreciate the skill of the athletes. Yet people not only turn on them if they err, they also turn on one another if they root for opposite teams, or if in their anxiety or boredom they need an outlet, a scapegoat. The beautiful crowd of people who seem harmless, innocuous, and only interested in apprehending beauty at one moment turn into a poisonous “It” capable of any sort of abuse in the next.

When one thinks of what sorts of mobs a few groups of people have changed into—lynch mobs, the Ku Klux Klan, or Nazis—one cannot miss the potential of Williams’s metaphorical implications.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 194

Axelrod, Steven Gould, and Helen Deese, eds. Critical Essays on William Carlos Williams. New York: G. K. Hall, 1995.

Beck, John. Writing the Radical Center: William Carlos Williams, John Dewey, and American Cultural Politics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Bremen, Brian A. William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Copestake, Ian D., ed. Rigor of Beauty: Essays in Commemoration of William Carlos Williams. New York: Peter Lang, 2004.

Fisher-Wirth, Ann W. William Carlos Williams and Autobiography: The Woods of His Own Nature. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989.

Gish, Robert. William Carlos Williams: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Laughlin, James. Remembering William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1995.

Lenhart, Gary, ed. The Teachers and Writers Guide to William Carlos Williams. New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1998.

Lowney, John. The American Avant-Garde Tradition: William Carlos Williams, Postmodern Poetry, and the Politics of Cultural Memory. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1997.

Mariani, Paul. William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked. 1981. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.

Vendler, Helen, ed. Voices and Visions: The Poet in America. New York: Random House, 1987.

Whitaker, Thomas R. William Carlos Williams. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

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Themes