The 10 Best Baseball Books Ever Written

In the cold dark of winter, a middle-aged man’s fancy turns to thoughts of summer, baseball, beer, and the best books about baseball. On the last hump day in January, the Top Ten Baseball books of all time, and a brief description:

  1. The Glory of Their Times, Lawrence S. Ritter
  2. Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James
  3. Total Baseball
  4. My Turn at Bat, Ted Williams
  5. Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn
  6. A Day in the Bleachers, Arnold Hano
  7. Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, LeRoy “Satchel” Paige
  8. Ball Four, Jim Bouton
  9. Cobb: A Biography, Al Stump
  10. Playing for Keeps: A History of Early Baseball, Warren Goldstein

1. The Glory of Their Times, Lawrence S. Ritter
In 1961 after Ty Cobb died, Lawrence Ritter got the idea of sitting down and talking to other great, old-time baseball players before it was too late. In pursuit of that goal, he traveled over 75,000 miles recording his conversations with some of the best players to have ever played the game.The result of these conversations is the single best book about baseball ever written. Ritter helped to invent a genre of sports book, the recorded-conversation, that has been often copied but never with the same success. His conversations with the likes of Hank Greenberg, Sam Crawford, Goose Goslin, and Stan Coveleski are engaging, humorous, revealing, and always magical. As the players look back at their youth and the game that they played from the vantage point of old age their memories take on a lyrical quality that is at once a tribute to the game they loved and to a time in America long gone. (For a more complete review,click here.)

2. The Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James
I used to play a game with a friend of mine who is one of the biggest baseball fans I have ever met. The question was: what one book would you want with you if you were stranded on a desert island? It always came down to a choice between MacMillan’s Baseball Encyclopedia or this one, James’sHistorical Abstract. When stats guru Bill James examines the history of baseball he creates a work that is much more than a stat book. Decade by decade he examines the players, the developments, and the growth of the game he knows so well. In 2001, James published an updated and revised version. I prefer the original.

3. Total Baseball
Once MacMillian’s Baseball Encyclopedia deservedly had the moniker of “the bible of baseball.” Total Baseball rightfully holds that title today. Utilizing advances in baseball research and statistical analysis,TB gives you 10 times more information than MacMillan’s, and dozen’s of great essays, something MacMillan’s never had at all. TB lets you compare players within their eras and within the history of the game. There is no better way to watch a game of baseball on TV than with a copy sitting on a table next to you. How does Randy Johnson stack up against Lefty Grove and Sandy Koufax? How does Alex Rodriquez compare to Honus Wagner?

4. My Turn at Bat, Ted Williams and John Underwood
In his career Ted Williams often felt victimized by members of the press, and, if truth be told he was. While DiMaggio in New York was afforded a free pass by an adoring press, Williams in Boston who actually saw combat in two wars was savaged at every turn. This is William’s chance to tell his side of the story. The last man to hit .400 discusses his neglected childhood in San Diego, being a fighter pilot in World War II and Korea, Boston and the Red Sox, fishing and, of course, hitting. 100 years from now, when the personal baggage between William’s and the media is long forgotten, Williams will be remembered with Jackie Robinson, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Babe Ruth as one of the seven greatest players of the 20th century. When you factor in the seasons lost to not just one, but two wars, number 9 certainly deserves the title of “the greatest hitter to have ever lived.”

5. Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn
The definitive book about Brooklyn and the Dodgers, Kahn’s sentimental work weaves together his own autobiography into stories about and conversations with the men who once made Brooklyn the emotional center of the capital of baseball: Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, and especially Jackie Robinson. There are scores of other books about the Dodgers and Jackie Robinson but this is by far the best. It is also one of the best books about the game of baseball. (For a more complete review, click here.)

6. A Day in the Bleachers, Arnold Hano
Other writers have attempted to analyze the game of baseball by analyzing the action, strategy, and play of a single game. The fact that Hano did it first, with so much sentimentality and grace, and that the game in question is Game 1 of the 1954 World Series has meant that every other attempt to follow Hano’s formula has been destined to failure. From to Willie May’s catch, to Dusty Rhodes’s home run, this is the best insider’s look at the game of baseball ever written. (For a more complete review, click here.)

7. Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, Satchel Paige and David Lipton
Paige was somewhere between age 50 and 90 when he broke into the Major Leagues in 1948. Perhaps the greatest pitcher of all time, Paige never got a shot at the all-white Major Leagues until it was almost too late. Considering how well he fared as a senior citizen, we can only assume that in his prime he was as unhittable as the many legends about him claim. Paige discusses his considerable legend and adds to it, describing life in the Negro Leagues, the Jim Crow South, and barnstorming baseball before Jackie Robinson.

8. Ball Four, Jim Bouton
Bouton’s book was a controversial bestseller in 19. Profiling the drinking, womanizing, and shenanigans on and off the field of his teammates and fellow players in the early and mid-1960s, Bouton’s expose seems tame by today’s standards. In its time, though, it caused a great deal of embarrassment for Mickey Mantle, the Yankees, and Major League Baseball, so much so that Bouton, a pitcher, found himself blackballed and out of work. Still one of the top-ten books about baseball.

9. Cobb: A Biography, Al Stump
Ty Cobb has been called the greatest baseball player who ever lived, a racist, a killer, and the meanest man alive. Stump, who spent more harrowing days with the lonely and driven Cobb than seems possible, or even advisable, presents us with a complex portrait of a man who was indeed everything he has been called and more. On and off the field, Cobb has driven by demons of racism, hatred, personal tragedy and mental illness to be the best, at all costs. Stump profiles the life of the man who built a staggering baseball legacy and personal fortune, but in the end, died friendless and un-mourned. The best baseball biography ever written, period.

10. Playing for Keeps: A History of Early Baseball, Warren Goldstein
The origin of baseball in America, like the origin of all important things, is shrouded in myth. The very location of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, was predicated on the myth of Abner Doubleday inventing the game there. Mr. Goldstein delves beneath the myth into baseball’s very pre-history, to discover the historical origins of the game that has defined America more than any other. The result is a remarkable work that is beautifully written, entertaining, and difficult to put down. Goldstein’s achievement gives us a better understanding of the game, and reminds us of why we love it so much.

Music Monday: “Darkness on the Edge of Town” by Bruce Springsteen

There are to my mind three distinct eras in Springsteen’s music:

  • Early Springsteen, everything up to Born in the USA (including Nebraska)
  • Born in the USA and Tunnel of Love
  • Late Springsteen

I am in the camp of those who prefer Early Springsteen (including Nebraska): the working class angst, the anger, the energy, the raw youthfulness, the rootiness of rock and blues. I can listen to and enjoyBorn in the USA and Tunnel of Love but I have no great passion for those songs. I have no interest whatsoever in anything after Tunnel of Love… so two decades worth of music.

Looking for youtube footage of “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” one of my all time favorites, I found a number of clips from the last two decades. The one I include here shows my bias for the Early Springsteen. It is grainy, and black and white… but it is essential Springsteen.

What better way to start another cold and bleak week than with “Darkness of the Edge of Town.”

Poetry Review: “Psalm 14”


St. Thomas Aquinas

The “poems” that make up the book of psalms were written long before the first century. Yet in the nature of great literature they hold truths that are as important and relevant today and they were when they were first heard.

In the time that Psalm 14 was first composed and sung, monotheism was a minority religion. Most  peoples of the world believed: in a set of gods particular to their culture/family; a democratic kind of holiness that said that you believe in your gods and I will believe in my gods and we will leave each other alone; or in no gods at all. While people claiming to adhere to monotheism in the 21st Century has increased “radically,” in point of fact, not much has changed.

The result of thinking that gods and religion really don’t matter are quite clear to the psalmist. For the psalmist, being rightly rooted in faith in the one true God leads naturally to peace, better life, and a better world. Just as obviously, being rooted into the wrong faith, or believing that faith does not matter, leads inevitably into violence, ignorance, and chaos.

St. Thomas Aquinas believed that if you had a thousand years, you could through reason convince any person of the existence of God and the truth of Christ. He believed, like the psalmist, that wisdom led back to the Creator because all reason and wisdom began there. Intellect and reason were inextricably mixed with the author of both.

Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and the rest of the reformers held no such confidence in the power of reason. The Protestant battle cries of “faith alone”… “scripture alone”… express the duality of reason and faith that the Reformation ushered into the Western world. Reason is used to talk about faith in the Protestant world, it cannot by definition lead you there. Mohammad created the same dualism for Islam by making God so transcendent that ultimately you can only hint at aspects of God. Reason in that religion has a lesser place apparently than even the most radical Protestantism.

The faith vs. reason battle of the Reformation has become the religion vs. science battle of our time. Like the psalmist, we live in a time when most people believe in whatever god (small g) they are born into “worshiping” or they believe in none at all. For the psalmist it is all the same. It involves ultimately, fools missing the truth of the one, true God.

Religion matters profoundly. Thinking it does not is foolishness. But it also matters whether the chosen religion is “true” or not. The wrong religion is also dangerous, more dangerous even than no religion at all, perhaps. That was true thousands of years ago. How much more true is it in our own nuclear-loaded, inter-connected, small world?

Psalm 14

The fool says in his heart,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do
abominable deeds,
there is none that does good.

2 The LORD looks down from heaven
upon the children of men,
to see if there are any that act
that seek after God.

3 They have all gone astray, they are
all alike corrupt;
there is none that does good,
no, not one.

4 Have they no knowledge, all
the evildoers
who eat up my people
as they eat bread,
and do not call upon the LORD?

5 There they shall be in great terror,
for God is with the generation
of the righteous.
6 You would confound the plans
of the poor,
but the LORD is his refuge.

7 O that deliverance for Israel
would come out of Zion!
When the LORD restores
the fortunes of his people,
Jacob shall rejoice, Israel shall be glad

Poetry Review: “Winter Trees” by William Carlos Williams

WCW_PoemsWilliam Carlos Williams said he modeled his original form and style of poetry on the language that he heard ordinary people using in his day to day life as a doctor. One of the things that fascinated him was the effect that radio and newspapers, the mass communication of his time, was having on ordinary language. In the second decade of the 21st century, we know that the effect on language by mass communication has only increased exponentially.

Mass communication levels language, simplifies it. Whether this is for the better or worse, I cannot say. How can increasing communication ever be a harmful thing? But than again, how can “genericizing” anything ever be good?

Language evolves. The English of Shakespeare is different from that of Shelley. The English of Shelley bears little in common with that of William Carlos Williams. Distance, time, oceans all change that fragile thing, our common tongue, that holds so many of us together even across the centuries.

Poetry is the most peculiar of arts because it uses as its “tools” the most ordinary of elements, words. The same words that are the “spit and sport of the mundane” are called upon to become transcendent.

A music composer has for his or her tools kinds of sounds that are made on instruments specifically created for his or her art. A painter has a palette of colors that rightfully belongs only to God and to artists. But the poor poet must take the same tools that are daily used to sell underwear and information and make them something else all together.

On a winter morning, a poem by Williams on trees seems like just the thing. Notice how Williams uses ordinary language about ordinary things, in this case trees, to make something extraordinary.


Winter Trees

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.

Poetry Review: “Memorabilia” by Robert Browning

robert_browningI have been spending a little time of late again with Robert Browning… reading Chesterton’s biography of Browning and re-reading for the first time in a couple of decades his poetry in a serious and more formal way.

I have never been far from Browning (who incidentally, shares my birthday) because certain Browning poems and lines are always with me. That is the nature of poetry, it stays with you… sometimes forever if it is good. And Browning is, of course, very good.

“Memorabilia” is a poem I have always liked: the reference to Shelley, the physical-ness of memory, the image of wide open spaces, the talisman-like eagle’s wing. With a simple rhyme scheme and a simple form, Browning accomplishes much.

Once, years ago, my car broke down in Eastern Montana, a simple flat tire but I had no spare. I caught a ride into a nearby town and back with a rancher. When the flat was changed, it was late afternoon and I was too tired to keep driving and so I pitched my tent a few miles off the highway in a grove of trees the rancher directed me to. In the evening, I walked across the big open country and ate my dinner on a bare hilltop. As I walked, the words of stanza 3 kept coming to my mind. Now when I read this poem that perfect afternoon returns again to my mind. Again, the power of poetry.




Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you?
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems, and new?


But you were living before that,
And you are living after,
And the memory I started at—
My starting moves your laughter.


I crossed a moor with a name of its own
And a certain use in the world no doubt,
Yet a hand’s-breath of it shines alone
‘Mid the blank miles round about—


For there I picked up on the heather
And there I put inside my breast
A moulded feather, an eagle-feather—
Well, I forget the rest.

Magnus Robot Fighter: Prophet or Luddite

Growing up I was an avid comic book reader. I read everything because I had just about everything… inherited from older cousins and neighbors. I horded and collected them and read them many times.

I had a soft spot in those days for Gold Key comics. Comics that featured vivid, pulp-stylized painted covers and some “quirkier” less-heralded heroes. One of my favorites was Magnus: Robot Fighter.

Magnus: Robot Fighter was first published in February 1963 by Gold Key. It was the singular creation, as much as any comic book can be said to be a singular creation, of Russ Manning, who was both writer and artist. Manning would be the creative driving force behind MRF for 21 of the 27 original stories printed by Gold Key.

Magnus’s Beginnings

In interviews, Manning said that he had heard about plans to develop a comic book character and series that would take place in 4000 A.D. The idea was that by 4000 A.D. robots would have become the dominant force in the world. Created originally to serve human beings, robots now ruled human beings. Humanity was in need of a savior.

Manning, who is, of course, famous for his work on Tarzan said that from the beginning he pictured a Tarzan-like protaganist who was like a “force of nature.” Working with the people at Gold Key, Manning developed the world and the character of Magnus that is now familiar to many loyal fans.

The Milieu

The early 1960s, the time in which Manning and the staff at Gold Key first created MRF, was a period of great upheaval and change in America and the world at large. In 1961, with the Cold War was at its height, the U.S.S.R. had put the first man in orbit, Yuri Gagarin. America and American culture was shocked into the space age. By the end of 1962, John Glenn had become the first American to orbit the earth and the first great telecommunications satellite, Telstar, had been put into orbit by the United States.

As rapidly as technology changed in the 1960s, so too did America and American Culture. Throughout the 1960′s, the time when Manning did his work on MRF, America underwent a veritable paradigm shift in its own conciousness. The confidence and joy inspired by the race to the moon was tempered paradoxically by the Vietnam War, the Cold War, racial tensions, assasinations.

MRF and Views the Future

Not suprisingly, the view of the future offered by Manning in MRF is not idyllic. Against the background of the atomic bomb and the Cold War, technology was recognized to be a two-sided coin, it could either be a creative or destructive force for humanity’s future.

Manning’s vision of human-created technology one day controling humans was one that was voiced by many in a variety of science fiction works of the time. But certainly the Star Trek model of technology assisting humans as they rescue themselves and their future from their baser instincts was a much more popular notion: humans and technology would continue to evolve together into a better and brighter future.

While it would be misleading to say that Manning and MRF had a vision of the future that was much “darker” than Gene Rodenberry’s, a case can be made that Manning at least recognized the darker side of technology. Manning’s world does have an under-class. It has people who have been left behind by the modern world, or, who for reasons of their own, have chosen not to participate in the technological future that has been so completely embraced by the other members of their society.

Magnus for Us Today

What then is Magnus’s message to us? As we hear again and again, those who champion scientific advancement and the technological revolution, Magnus reminds us of how uncertain our future really is. Technology does not have the capacity to save us. Only we can do that. Technology’s greatest seduction is that it causes us to forget those who are left behind. Our information revolution is in danger of leaving behind a huge under-class of those unable for economic, educational, and cultural reasons to participate.

As we read and enjoy Russ Manning’s fine work in Magnus Robot Fighter, and enjoyment is the point, we can’t help but notice the many themes that were so much a part of the milieu of the 1960s. We also cannot help but be struck by how many of the same themes resonate with our own time. While mere comic books can be taken too seriously, important issues that they introduce and present should never be taken lightly.

Music Monday: “Freefallin'” by Atmosphere

This summer my daughter Dylan and I started listening to a lot of Atmosphere, a rap group from the Twin Cities. For both of us, listening to any kind of rap music seriously was a new experience. And yet we became fans. Huge fans.

Rap music ultimately is not about the music but about the lyrics. A rap song can have a driving beat that people like but the whole point of a rap song lies in the words since only the words are truly creative. Obviously most rap lyrics are pure, unadulterated crap… violence-glorifying, materialistic, misogynistic crap. Not so with Atmosphere.

“Freefallin’” is their latest hit. It is not my favorite Atmosphere song but it does display what is best about them. The visuals are not worth a tinker’s damn in this video… but I include the lyrics below. Read them while you listen to the song.

On another cold morning Atmosphere is just the ticket to remind us of the blessings we do have.



[Chorus x2:] 
Freefallin’ when you shook from the pack
Keep walkin’, let the foot leave a track
We often gotta look for the path
These problems, are the good ones to have

[Slug: Verse 1] 
Nobody wanna struggle at home
Bass in his voice, trouble in her tone
What kinda couple makes a puzzle out of stone?
Choppin’ and poppin’ all of the bubbles that are blown
Nobody wanna be wrong
And once the line gets drawn across what we disagree upon
It could be the timebomb that we sleep on
It’s just a little one
Back and forth like a ping pong
Nobody wants an argument
You try to bargain as a friend
But it’s hard to with a star offense against a smart defense
And the history you share is full of scars and dents
Nobody likes breakin’ up
When you hate the situation, but you crave the touch
You might stay in the relationship for the simple sake of it
Because you know it’s based in love

[Chorus x2:] 
Freefallin’ when you shook from the pack
Keep walkin’, let the foot leave a track
We often gotta look for the path
These problems, are the good ones to have

[Slug: Verse 2] 
Nobody wanna go to work
For some older jerk that doesn’t know the dirt
That’s embedded in the hearts of those that hurt
Monday through Friday and Saturday’s for bonus perks
Nobody befriends the beast
Just to make ends meat and try to pay rent and eat
Spreadsheets by the end of the week
You’d rather spread them sheets and try to get some sleep
Nobody wanna lift a crate
That ain’t living great
You wanna kid and play
You should dip, escape
No two week notification
Show up late and quit today
Nobody wants an awful boss
That got you poppin’ out the top of your mouth as if it’s common talk
You ought to wait until you off the clock
And appreciate the fact that you got a job

[Chorus x2:] 
Freefallin’ when you shook from the pack
Keep walkin’, let the foot leave a track
We often gotta look for the path
These problems, are the good ones to have

[Slug: Verse 3] 
But somebody want that life you got
They think your boyfriend’s nice or your wife is hot
They on your block lookin’ at that home you bought
They’d move in today if that door wasn’t locked
Nowadays you ought to watch your spot
Even with all the flaws of that boss you mock
You could still close your eyes and toss a rock
I bet you’d hit someone that’d love to cop your job
That’s what I thought
Of course you don’t stop
You won’t take the shot
You can’t afford the loss
If you don’t wanna taste the sauce
Then put the plate down and take a walk
Drop or move away from the pot
Cause every time you talk
Complain a lot
Don’t forget to count the balls y’all caught
Enjoy what you got before it all falls off

[Chorus x2:] 
Freefallin’ when you shook from the pack
Keep walkin’, let the foot leave a track
We often gotta look for the path
These problems, are the good ones to have

Poetry Review: “Tell” by Paul Muldoon

Poet Paul Muldoon uses a number of unconventional devices to create some unconventional poetry: archaic language, unusual rhyme schemes, “mashing” together two completely different things to create something new.

In “Tell,” Muldoon is much more straight-forward than that… he does “mash” together William Tell and American Indians but his rhyme scheme is more a “slant” rhyme than an unusual one per se.

Muldoon, who was born in Northern Ireland, borrows heavily on childhood memories in many of his best poems. He does it in a much different way though than his fellow Northern Ireland poet, Seamus Heaney. In my mind, I have always thought of Muldoon as an Irish Theodore Roethke: darker, edgier. It may simply be that I read a lot of Muldoon and Roethke at the same time and so they have morphed together in my mind over the years.

Muldoon is admittedly not the most natural choice for a Sunday morning poet… and “Tell” is not the most Sunday morning of poems. And yet on another dreary-cold January morning… it seems like just the thing.



He opens the scullery door, and a sudden rush
of wind, as raw as raw,
brushes past him as he himself will brush
past the stacks of straw

that stood in earlier for Crow
or Comanche tepees hung with scalps
but tonight past muster, row upon row,
for the foothills of the Alps.

He opens the door of the peeling-shed
just as one of the apple-peelers
(one of almost a score
of red-cheeked men who pare

and core
the red-cheeked apples for a few spare
shillings) mutters something about “bloodshed”
and the “peelers.”

The red-cheeked men put down their knives
at one and the same
moment. All but his father, who somehow connives
to close one eye as if taking aim

or holding back a tear,
and shoots him a glance
he might take, as it whizzes past his ear,
for a Crow, or a Comanche, lance

hurled through the Tilley-lit
gloom of the peeling-shed,
when he hears what must be an apple split
above his head.

Big Talk on the Lowly Comic Book

Capt_Marvel_1967_colanWithin the comic book industry, there is a small but vocal segment of collectors, artists, and writers who are uncomfortable with the traditional term “comic book.” These dissenters suggest a number of reasons for their desire to find different terminology for what they read, collect, or create. Chief among them being that the work they love is not being afforded the respect they believe it deserves by academia because academics, by definition, find comic books beneath serious study.

The argument apparently goes like this. In academia, comic books are for children, great literature and great art alone merit serious academic study…unless, of course, you are a professor of American Studies, American Culture, or Pop Culture… or are simply slumming. Within that framework, advocates of alternative terms such as “sequential art” and “graphic novel” argue, the work of mere comic book artists and writers will never get the serious attention it deserves.

Leaving aside for a moment the obvious question of why anyone who is not currently taking undergraduate classes would give as rat’s ass what any academic thinks, lets examine the basic argument presented for changing the “aforementioned nomenclature.”

To be fair, there are those who feel that a term like “sequential art” is simply more descriptive of the work they do and encompasses a much wider field of possibilities for what that art can someday become. For them, “comic” and “comic book” are limiting terms – for creators, market forces, and audiences alike. Since the greatest proponent of this term is Will Eisner, it would foolish for anyone, especially me a humble comic book reader, to argue with that assumption. Having said that, it is important to note, however, that for Eisner traditional comic books are simply one of many categories of communicative/narrative/art that can potentially fall under the broad umbrella called sequential art. Hence, even for Eisner, comic books would seem to remain a valid descriptor.

If the traditional comic book can be viewed than as one form of sequential art, and its most recognizable one at that, the question remains: what reason do dissenters possibly have for wanting to change the terminology. As suggested above, there is only one reason… comic books are not taken seriously enough as an art form by critics and academics. And that pains the dissenters.

It is difficult for anyone to have the things they are most passionate about taken lightly. When we are serious about something we want to be taken seriously. Comic books, mystery novels, and movies all lay outside the genres and categories of art traditionally studied in academia. There are film classes and departments at many universities, to be sure, but Shakespeare and Sophocles hold a place that Bergman and John Ford never will. Likewise, mystery writers like Chandler and MacDonald will never be esteemed in the same way as Joyce and Proust.

The obvious question becomes, what difference does it really make? Those of us who love comic books know the fine work of people like Will Eisner and Russ Manning. We know that comic books at their best have the capacity to entertain, delight, and make us think in the same way that any art at its best does. Just as velvet Elvis’s and dogs-playing-poker canvasses do not de-legitimate Michelangelo and Picasso so too adolescent and trite comic books do not de-legitimate what is best about the art form we love.

The problem is not in the term “comic book,” but rather in the quality of many of the books themselves. There is no good reason to take much of what has been and is currently being published seriously. It is simply bad, poorly written, violent, over-sexed, adolescent fantasy. It should be taken just as seriously as movies like Revenge of the Nerds and Porky’s.

Comic books at their best are a great art form. The marriage of good writing and good art allows narrative and entertainment possibilities unattainable in traditional prose or traditional visual art forms. Those of us who are passionate about comic books do not care whether academics take them seriously, we figure that is their loss. It is possible to be just as serious about comic books as about any art form, without taking ourselves or comic books too seriously.

Poetry Review: “Death of a Naturalist” by Seamus Heaney

The completely solitary self: that’s where poetry comes from, and it gets isolated by crisis, and those crises are often very intimate also.
~ Seamus Heaney


In “Death of a Naturalist” Seamus Heaney’s gifts as a poet are clearly on display: the clashing consonants, the onomatopoeia, the wonderful attention to detail, the evocative reminiscing. These are what make Heaney one of the greatest poets of our time.

I like reading Heaney in the cold of winter. Some of his best poems feature spring or summer memories. When you read a poem like “Death of a Naturalist” your own reminiscences of childhood mix and mingle with his. That is the nature of a great poem, it draw us in… and then draws out from us: emotion, memory, thoughts, wonder.


Death of a Naturalist

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.