Saturday, October 09, 2010

A Writing Lesson from Rusty Staub

"He was never a great player, but hit for a good average and good power, and had a strong arm from right field."

Rusty Staub has been my favorite baseball player for as long as I can remember. He played for my father's team and was a dynamic player for them at two formative moments in my life: When I was becoming old enough and aware enough of the team to root for real and not just because rooting earned me a cookie, and again when I began accumulating my own money to spend on tickets. The line above is from his official website, so it must be description of himself that approves of.

I've met Rusty twice, and you wouldn't think from the way people treat him that he "was never... great". He surely made the most of "very good"; he played for 23 years, and was good in every role he had, at first, in right, DHing, or coming off the bench late in the game. He hit .279 for his career (which you may remember was approaching its peak around the same time as the "Year of the Pitcher"), and belted 292 career home runs. I suppose those aren't great numbers. But they were number I could root for. Numbers suggesting accomplishments that were important to me individually, and over a career.

Put your seat belt on; here comes the turn toward poetry.

I'm missing Dodge this year (first time since 1998), in part because of a confluence of busyness at work and home, and in part because of a nasty cold that's just kicking my tuchus mercilessly, so all I've seen is the Thursday night simulcast, where the 24 "featured" poets (though they don't call them anything like that anymore) each read for 4-5 minutes (or in Rita Dove's case, 9). As they paraded by in these short stints, I was wondering which of them I'd call "great", if any. It's not terribly relevant which ones I think compete for the title; the point is simply that (no offense to anyone....), it's probably not all of them.

Forgive me, oh gods of parity and you literarical correctness wonks, but that's the truth. Not everyone who speaks a line of verse during the 2010 Dodge Festival is a great poet. And if I were to name one or two that I think are truly great, I could find 10 people outside the NJPAC right now to disagree. And that's OK.

We don't all need to be great to contribute something to the art. But to contribute, we need to be aware that we are not all great. That the last poem I wrote is probably not "The Man With The Blue Guitar" that the last book I read is probably not Paterson. But there may be some artistic merit in them if we permit them to fill their role - in our own portfolios first, then in our writing communities, then amid the clutter and cacophony that is contemporary poetry.

Heresy? I don't know. Cop-out? Hardly. I listen to Amiri Baraka and read the analyses of Ron Silliman and know immediately where my part-time hobbyism leaves me in the pantheon. But I don't stop writing. I have an audience in mind, an emergence of a style, and an approach I don't see many other poets using. There's something there to contribute. Someone to contribute it to.

My poems, maybe, are the literary equivalent of a good right-handed stick off the bench. Rusty batted lefty; there's room for me on the team.

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