JCBA 21 Cover JCBA 21 Table of Contents

"Dream of a Baseball Star" originally appeared in The Happy Birthday of Death (New York: New Directions, 1960). The poem was reprinted in Mindfield: New and Selected Poems (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1989).

I dreamed Ted Williams

leaning at night

against the Eiffel Tower, weeping.

He was in uniform

and his bat lay at his feet

-- knotted and twiggy.

"Randall Jarrell says you're a poet!" I cried.

"So do I! I say you're a poet!"

He picked up his bat with blown hands;

stood there astraddle as he would in the batter's box,

and laughed! flinging his schoolboy wrath

toward some invisible pitcher's mound

-- waiting the pitch all the way from heaven.

It came; hundreds came! all afire!

He swung and swung and swung and connected not one

sinker curve hook or right-down-the middle.

A hundred strikes!

The umpire dressed in strange attire

thundered his judgment: YOU'RE OUT!

And the phantom crowd's horrific boo

dispersed the gargoyles from Notre Dame.

And I screamed in my dream:

God! throw thy merciful pitch!

Herald the crack of bats!

Hooray the sharp liner to left!

Yea the double, the triple!

Hosannah the home run!


Perhaps no Beat poet except Allen Ginsberg was drawn to the surrealistic poetics of dream-life as Gregory Corso was. For Corso, as for most surrealists, the psychological reality of dreams is as "real" as the material reality of our waking lives. Such artists are attracted to dream-work because in dreams the imagination thrives disentangled from the judgments of the rational mind. As Freud writes in The Interpretation of Dreams, "Dreams . . . are often most profound when they seem most crazy. In every epoch of history those who have had something to say but could not say it without peril have eagerly assumed a fool's cap" (480). In "A Clown in the Grave": Complexities and Tensions in the Works of Gregory Corso, Michael Skau argues that a "preference of imagination over reality" in Corso's work is "vital," for the poet, "to understanding and perception" (22; 20).

[Back to the poem.]

Ted Williams (1918-2002):
Also known as "Teddy Ballgame," "The Splendid Splinter," "The Thumper," and "The Kid," Williams was the Boston Red Sox's left fielder from 1939-1960. Williams is considered the best hitter of all time by most fans and players. He played 19 seasons and led the American League in hitting six times. He was the last player to hit .400, reaching .406 during the 1941 season. Williams's .344 lifetime batting average is the highest of any ballplayer with more than 500 home runs (Williams finished with 521 homers). "For me," John Updike writes, "Williams is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill" ("Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," New Yorker, Oct. 22, 1960). During his career, Williams's deft play in left field, especially his relationship with Fenway Park's imposing left-field wall (known as the "Green Monster," or simply as "The Wall"), transformed him into an outfield archetype for Red Sox fans; from Carl Yastrzemski onward, all subsequent left-fielders would be judged according to whether they played the Wall as Williams did.

Mindful of Williams's mythic stature in Boston, Corso transforms him into a pop-art icon in the poem. Corso's use of pop-art archetypes is praised by Allen Ginsberg in his introduction to Corso's Mindfield: New and Selected Poems. Ginsberg writes that Corso's "late 1950's poems (like Kerouac's 1951-52 scriptures on 'Joan [Crawford] Rawshanks in the Fog' & 'Neal and The Three Stooges') manifest a precursor Pop artistry, the realized notice of quotidian artifacts." See also the pop mythology of Corso's famous poem, "Power," which appears in the same collection as "Dream of a Baseball Star," The Happy Birthday of Death:

        Since I depend on heroes for opinion and acceptance
        I live by proper truth and error
        O but how sad is Ted Williams     gypped and chiseled
        All alone in center field
        Let me be your wise Buck Rogers!

Williams is represented as "alone in center field" in Corso's "Power" rather than in left field. Williams played a total of 1,984 games in left field and 169 in right field. But he never played a major league game in center field.

[Back to the poem.]

Eiffel Tower:
Updike described Ted Williams's final major-league at-bat, a homer to Fenway Park's centerfield on September 28, 1960, in a way that recalls Corso's dream of Williams "leaning . . . against the Eiffel Tower": "From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge" ("Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu"). As for Corso's knowledge of landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, the poet was one of several Beat writers who resided off and on from 1958-1963 at 9 Rue Git-Le-Coeur in Paris, a low-rent rooming house later known simply as the "Beat Hotel."

[Back to the poem.]

Ted Williams's Bat:
Click here for an image of the bat Ted Williams swung for his final home run.

[Back to the poem.]

Randall Jarrell:
Jarrell (1914-1965), a poet and critic, was a luminary of postwar U.S. poetry who briefly mentored Corso. He was a master of poetic form and technique, and his poems were emotionally subtle. His first encounters with the Beats were anything but pleasant for him. As Mary Jarrell writes, Corso, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and Burroughs met with Jarrell in San Francisco in fall 1956, at which point Burroughs "challenged Jarrell to demonstrate 'excellence' in poetry. When Jarrell read Frost's 'Home Burial' aloud to them, Ginsberg leaped up in the middle shouting, 'Coupla squares yakking!' Jarrell finished his poem and was finished with Ginsberg" (Mary Jarrell, Randall Jarrell's Letters: An Autobiographical and Literary Selection 418).

But Jarrell was not finished with Corso. In an October 18, 1956, letter to the poet Karl Shapiro, written less than a month after his San Francisco visit, Jarrell writes: "I met a really good (and wholly delightful) new young poet named Gregory Corso. He's all that the tea-party or gray-flannel or World-of-Richard-Wilbur poets aren't. Not that I don't like Wilbur, but one is enough" (Randall Jarrell's Letters 417). Ironically, the most vocal prankster of all Beat writers, Corso, made the greatest impression on Jarrell. As Mary Jarrell writes, "Later, Corso left San Francisco for New York and stopped off in Washington to see Jarrell. He arrived in his Harvard chinos and tennis shoes and wearing a black Shetland sweater over a white Arrow shirt. . . . He was coatless, tieless, sockless, and penniless -- all of which Jarrell gladly supplied. Then, remembering his own hard times as a beginning poet . . . Jarrell invited Corso to stay indefinitely and work on his poetry" (Randall Jarrell's Letters 418). Mary Jarrell observes that Jarrell became a poetic "mentor" for Corso, even though "Jarrell's long talks with Corso kept him from his own poetry" (418).

Eventually, as Mary Jarrell writes, Jarrell and Corso differed on the role of revision, with Corso "committed to the Beat principle that spontaneity was all." Jarrell became "[d]isenchanted with Corso," and was "relieved when he finally resumed his trip to New York" (418). No evidence from Randall Jarrell's letters or Mary Jarrell's commentary indicates that Corso worked on "Dream of a Baseball Star" during his stay with the Jarrells in Washington, although Corso's remarks in this poem confirm the mentoring relationship the two poets shared.

Of Ted Williams, Mary Jarrell reports that Randall Jarrell held the Red Sox's star in the same high regard as John F. Kennedy and the Jarrells' cat, Kitten: "During August [1960], the Jarrells followed the presidential campaign on the radio, but Jarrell wanted to see Kennedy (of whom he said, as he said of Ted Williams and Kitten, 'every part of him had a clear, quick, decided look')" (Randall Jarrell's Letters 445).

[Back to the poem.]

Corso says Ted Williams is a poet:
When Corso speaks in a baseball poem, he's talking as much about the movement of the imagination as he is the movement of a ballgame. In his poem "Written While Watching the Yankees Play Detroit," which appears just a two pages after "Dream of a Baseball Star" in The Happy Birthday of Death, the creative imagination is poised "[b]etween the banks of life and death." The Yankees-Tigers game frames the entire poem -- but only as its title, because baseball is mentioned nowhere else in the piece. The poem dramatizes a perfect ballpark moment for just about any fan: the game itself, like the title of this poem, triggers the imagination, then cedes the stage to the imagination. Rather than function as an event that spectators passively gaze upon, the ball game is instead the catalyst for each spectator's own individual visions.

The ballpark in "Written While Watching the Yankees Play Detroit" is the setting for a surreal dreamscape where "[c]reation fumes our blood." Fire itself sneaks from "the fireside" in absurdist language play where the fire "beamed a senate of rolling lions / to out the door yard hunk junk crab meal spring fig." The poem ends as absurdly as it begins -- "crab meal spring fig" is no more rational than the concept of a poem whose title reflects a Yankees-Tigers game but makes no mention of baseball in the text of the poem itself.  However, this absurdity is exactly the point; language is the surreal intersection of the rational and nonrational mind in Corso's poetry, and from this intersection comes the "fume" and "blood" of the creative process. See also "Poets Hitchhiking on the Highway," or his most famous poem, "Marriage," where he reflects: "How else to feel other than I am, / often thinking Flash Gordon soap."

[Back to the poem.]

"Astraddle . . . in the batter's box":
Describing Ted Williams in the batter's box, Updike writes: "Whenever Williams appeared at the plate -- pounding the dirt from his cleats, gouging a pit in the batter's box with his left foot, wringing resin out of the bat handle with his vehement grip, switching the stick at the pitcher with an electric ferocity -- it was like having a familiar Leonardo appear in a shuffle of Saturday Evening Post covers. This man, you realized -- and here, perhaps, was the difference, greater than the difference in gifts -- really desired to hit the ball" ("Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu").

[Back to the poem.]

Williams "laughed":
Earlier in the poem, Williams is pressed up against the Eiffel Tower, "weeping." But the image that appears later in the poem,Williams in the batter's box mocking the pitcher with his laughter, is more common. Williams earned a reputation among fans, fellow players, and sportswriters as an arrogant, self-absorbed athlete. In the poem, Williams is "weeping" until the speaker proclaims that he is a poet -- at which point Williams regains his usual pride and positions himself, laughing, "astraddle" at home plate, waiting with "schoolboy wrath" for the pitcher to throw.

Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson's remarks on Williams's first spring training with the Red Sox (1938) demonstrate what fans and fellow ballplayers learned about Williams's psyche throughout his career: Williams was "a precocious prospect . . . who masked his insecurity with cockiness" (Red Sox Century: One Hundred Years of Red Sox Baseball 207). During spring training 1941, the year Williams would hit .406, "Williams arrived at camp oozing confidence, asking the writers rhetorically, 'How can they stop me from hitting? They can't, that's all'" (Red Sox Century 221-22).

Corso's ballplayer in "Dream of a Baseball Star" reflects the psychological complexity of Williams himself. After the Red Sox lost the 1946 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals -- inaugurating a ceaseless string of late-season and playoff tragedies for Red Sox fans in the postwar era -- Williams was isolated and emotionally distraught, just as he is at the beginning of Corso's poem: "A teary-eyed Ted Williams was the last man out of the clubhouse. Jubilant Cardinal fans jeered, 'Where's Superman?' He returned to Boston as he'd arrived in St. Louis -- sitting alone" (Red Sox Century 258).

[Back to the poem.]

Williams's "schoolboy wrath":
Williams was as gentle as he was nasty -- his "wrath" indeed was about as easy to understand as that of a "schoolboy." He spit at hometown fans and members of the press at Fenway more than once. During a 1958 game at Fenway, he tossed his bat in anger into the stands, striking former manager Joe Cronin's housekeeper, Gladys Heffernan. Fortunately, Heffernan survived the incident with only a cut on the forehead. Still, Williams is known for his altruistic charity work as well as his antagonistic temper. Williams worked closely with The Jimmy Fund, a Boston-based children's cancer charity. In 1995, Williams started the ".406 Club," a foundation that generated $2 million for the Jimmy Fund.

[Back to the poem.]

A sample of Corso's heaven(s):

From "God is a Masturbator" (in Elegiac Feelings American):

        Thank God one's thoughts
        excite as much as flesh
        Thank God there's a place
        in all this he and she
        and he and he
        and she and she
        for a me and me --

From "I Held a Shelley Manuscript" (in The Happy Birthday of Death):

        Often, in some steep ancestral book,
        when I find myself entangled with leopard-apples
             and torched-mushrooms,
        my cypressean skein outreaches the recorded age
        and I, as though tipping a pitcher of milk,
        pour secrecy on the dying page.

From "Power" (in The Happy Birthday of Death):

        O but there are times SHAZAM is not enough
        There is a brutality in the rabbit
        That leads the way to Paradise -- far from God!
        There is a cruelness in the fawn
        Its tiger-elegance gnawing clover to the bone . . .

[Back to the poem.]

Pitches "all afire":
Corso composed a companion drawing to "Dream of a Baseball Star," published alongside the poem when it was reprinted in Mindfield: New and Selected Poems. In this drawing, Ted Williams whiffs his gnarled branch of a bat against relentless wads of fire in his pitiful, failed efforts to make contact.

[Back to the poem.]

"A Hundred Strikes":
Williams was a classic contact hitter. That is, he was a batter who did not strike out often. When he made outs, it usually was by hitting the ball to someone. He holds the highest career on-base percentage in major-league history, .482, and led the American League in on-base percentage twelve times in his career. As New York Yankees' manager Joe Torre said of Williams in a 2002 interview with Peter Gammons, ''I've heard it said that we [the Yankees] changed the game because of our approach, our deep counts, our discipline and patience. . . . We didn't change anything. There's nothing new to be brought to hitting, because Ted [Williams] understood it all. What have the Yankees been doing offensively the last six years? What Ted told us to do. In many ways, the Yankee philosophy is simply the Williams philosophy" (Gammons, "The Science of Hitting," The Boston Globe, July 22, 2002).

[Back to the poem.]

The umpire's "judgment":
Corso's prankster spirit was legendary in Beat circles, and he wasn't the type of person to accept the judgment of cultural umpires -- those whom Ralph Waldo Emerson once derisively called "esteemed umpires of taste" -- without a fight. But in the same way that former New York Mets' manager Bobby Valentine once wore a fake mustache disguise in his dugout after an umpire kicked him out of a game, Corso, too, fought back with a relentless absurdity that challenged the voices of discipline and power. As Kirby Olson writes in Gregory Corso: Doubting Thomist, Corso once "lived in a Buddhist official's house because the man had said at a public talk that it was important to share. Corso helped himself to the man's food and bed for the summer" (3).

[Back to the poem.]

The "phantom crowd's horrific boo":
Updike notes the antipathy Red Sox fans held for Williams: "the left-field stands at Fenway for twenty years have held a large number of customers who have bought their way in primarily for the privilege of showering abuse on Williams. . . . His basic offense against the fans has been to wish they weren't there. Seeking a perfectionist's vacuum, he has quixotically desired to sever the game from the ground of paid spectatorship and publicity that supports it" ("Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu").

[Back to the poem.]

Corso's "gargoyles from Notre Dame":
The gargoyles of Notre Dame de Paris, built in the 12th century, are among the world's most famous gargoyle statuaries. Gargoyles originally were designed as rainwater drains for cathedrals. Today, of course, they are symbolic images: fantastic carved creatures perched like supernatural birds atop cathedrals. The word "gargoyle" itself traces back to the Old French "gargole" or "gargouille," meaning "throat" or "waterspout." In Corso's drawing, as in the poem, these gargoyles disperse as Ted Williams whiffs. For Corso, the rarity of a Ted Williams strikeout is enough to scatter the seemingly eternal gargoyles of Notre Dame.

[Back to the poem.]

"And I screamed in my dream":
Corso's temper may not have been much different from Ted Williams's own "schoolboy wrath." Olson writes that Corso once "smashed all of Allen Ginsberg's vintage jazz records from the 1950s, telling Ginsberg that he was helping him reach enlightenment because he was too attached to those records" (3). Skau describes a 1975 lecture by Tibetan lama Chögyam Trungpa, when Corso shouted from the back of the lecture hall: "There's too much killing. You want to kill ego too. You want to say that I peaked and killed culture and I made it in America. You dumb ass. You're one of the best foreigners that came here when this country was gone sick." As Skau notes, "Trungpa's lecture was titled 'Compassion' and focused on ego and authority as impediments to the expression of true compassion" (1).

Corso's fellow Beats often saw Corso's outbursts as purposeful. Indeed, the speaker of "Dream of a Baseball Star" shouts above the din of his dream as a way of talking back to God. Corso was, in Skau's words, a figure resembling the Native American mythic figure of Coyote, or Trickster, "a disruptive force -- self-centered, as unpredictable as a summer storm, unsettling the comfortable patterns of convention, and provoking those in contact with him to reassess their values, often much against their will" (2). I'd suggest, too, that Corso's public persona resembles the unsettling and inspiring figure of Padmasambhava in the "Crazy Wisdom" school of Tibetan Buddhism that Trungpa himself taught. In his lectures on Crazy Wisdom, Trungpa explains that the path to enlightenment "is extraordinarily sensitive and pleasurable" and "is like playing with fire" (Crazy Wisdom 37-38).

[Back to the poem.]

God's "merciful pitch":
Corso's drawings suggest a God whose pitches to Ted Williams might be more Satanic than "merciful." His God who throws "hundreds" of pitches "all afire" is a supernatural creature drawn with Satanic goat horns and his tongue sticking out. Olson argues that "[t]o ask whether [Corso's] vision is ultimately positive or not is . . . to miscalculate" (99). The "balancing act" between positive or negative is, according to Olson, best seen "in Corso's famous phrase at Naropa in which he gave the advice, 'When in doubt -- choose both!'" (99).

[Back to the poem.]

A "hosannah" is a cry of praise for God, an emotional exhortation. The word's Greek and Hebrew origins -- from the words for "deliver us" -- suggests that "hosannah" is as much about salvation as adoration.

[Back to the poem.]

Top of this Plate Table of Contents JCBA 21 Cover JCBA Home CBA Home