What Can We Steal From Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Casey at the Bat,” poem
Author: Ernest Lawrence Thayer
Date of Work: 1888
Where the Work Can Be Found: Thanks to public domain, the poem can be found in many anthologies and even on the Internet.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Technique

Discussion:
“The Outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day…” So begins “Casey at the Bat,” a narrative poem that is written on the hearts of all baseball fans and all Americans. Baseball fans can relate to the heartbreak felt by the Mudville supporters. (As a lifelong Tiger fan, you must believe that I know my share of heartbreak. The Bengals were terrible for a decade, lost 119 games in 2003 and threw away the World Series in 2006 on bad fielding by their pitchers.) The poem is more universal, however, as we can all understand how it feels to hope for deliverance that doesn’t come. Thayer published the poem in 1888 and it didn’t quite take off for a while. Then De Wolf Hopper, a vaudeville performer, started performing it in his act. He subsequently recited the poem about eleventy trillion times. (Can you imagine a person reading a poem being a big-time act in the United States?)

It also bears mentioning that “Casey” has a personal significance to me. I’ve had the incredible fortune to present at the scholarly conference held in Cooperstown each year and I have seen Tim Wiles, Director of Research for the Hall, recite the poem in full Mudville regalia. I highly recommend you check out his performance if you have the opportunity.

One of the many ways that Thayer draws the reader into the narrative is through the use of poetic meter. The rhythm of the words attracts your attention, doesn’t it?

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

If you are interested in writing poetry, you should learn the mechanics of poetic meter. (Don’t worry; it’s not that hard.) Lines are made up of poetic feet. The number of feet and their rhythm determine the kind of meter the poem is using. Shakespeare (and other Renaissance playwrights) employed iambic pentameter. “Iambic” means that the feet have a weak syllable and then a strong one. “Penta-” means that there are five feet. (The Pentagon has five sides.)

In order to figure out the meter, let’s take a line and break it down into strong and weak syllables. (Strong syllables will be in ALL CAPS.)

“The OUTlook WASn’t BRILLiant FOR the MUDville NINE that DAY.”

Can you feel that rhythm? There are seven “weak-strong” feet, so it’s iambic heptameter.

The rhythm of the lines keeps you listening. We’re pattern-seeking animals, after all, so we enjoy the regularity of the syllables. The use of meter and rhyme create suspense in the listener. We know what the rhyme will sound like, but we don’t know what it will be! Even if you’re not a fan of rap music, you can often find that the best rappers do very interesting things with meter and rhyme. (I happen to think folks such as Jay-Z and Eminem are worth examining.) Even if you’re not writing a poem, using these techniques can help you get the most out of your prose. Perhaps you will use rhyme and meter to create a memorable line at the end of a chapter.

Thayer also employs a technique that isn’t as common as I would like: the sad ending. When you watch a sports movie, you can tell very quickly whether or not the main characters will ultimately prevail. As Dante from Clerks points out, life is a series of down endings. The Mudville fans (and Casey himself) will probably learn a lot more from failure than from success.

What Should We Steal?:

  • Use the poet’s toolbox, no matter the genre in which you’re working. Poets are particularly good at condensing big concepts into few words. They’re also skilled at creating memorable sentences. Take advantage of what they have to offer you!
  • Allow yourself the freedom to let things end badly. Writers (including myself) get wrapped up in the characters, wanting them to succeed. We shouldn’t let our personal connection to the characters prevent us from creating stories that resemble life. A sad ending can also help us to create a work that is unexpected.

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