Seventy-three years ago, this April 15th, the son of a Georgia sharecropper made his Major League Baseball debut as a Brooklyn Dodger. Each April 15th since 2007, every Major Leaguer wears the number 42, the day set aside to honor the breaking of the color bar in 20th-century sport. To many, this story is well-known, but what does it have to do with poetry?
The story of Jackie Robinson, at first glance, appears to be about baseball—pitchers and hitters, double plays and stolen bases. And, of course, it is. Jackie revolutionized the game simply by doing what he did best, using his speed, daring, intelligence, and abilities.
Yet this story pushes us far beyond baseball. Jackie’s promise to Branch Rickey to not fight back when confronted with blatant racism, his willingness to carry the torch and burden of the black community, and his understanding that his success or failure would impact a nation at a postwar crossroads, all land us in unexpected territory. Going beyond stealing home plate 19 times, this story takes us to a ten-year-old white child in 1955 Brooklyn, who, when asked who her hero was, stated unhesitatingly, a black man smack in the middle of Jim Crow America, one day telling her children and grandchildren about watching her Ebbets Field hero play ball—the sort of thing that changes a nation from the inside.
Poetry, to me, can follow a similar vein. A poem may begin with a topic like baseball, but may end dealing with intimacy, or history, or family, or death, or the passage of time. Some of my favorite poems, and poets, take us beyond where we think we are going as we read the first line.
While I do believe that poetry comes in highly individual styles and purposes and that to read or write a line of poetry that rolls across a page like sunlight reflected on moving water is amazing to experience, I also love the idea of poetry as a story, told in a condensed space, a story that starts in one place, then mysteriously shifts to unexpected destinations, almost beyond the control of the poet.
To be transparent, I tend to write poems whose entry point is baseball. These poems, however, sometimes lead somewhere beyond, with a path and life all their own, beyond where I think I can take them on my own, where they hardly seem mine. I love that mystery of poetry.
Which brings me back to Jackie Robinson—a story of risking failure, ridicule, rejection; of recognizing worlds beyond oneself; of following the story wherever it might go, with all its risks and mysteries—a story speaking not only of a revolutionary and brave baseball player but also of the revolutionary and mysterious nature of poetry.