Denis Johnson

A Poem about Baseballs by Denis Johnson

In ‘A Poem about Baseballs’ Johnson explores themes of life, choices, and perceptions. The speaker in this piece transitions from a third-person narrator to a first-person narrator as the poem progresses. As this change occurs the dream qualities of the poem become more pronounced and the speaker eventually starts to reveal his fears and worries. 

A Poem about Baseballs by Denis Johnson


Summary of A Poem about Baseballs

A Poem about Baseballs’ by Denis Johnson depicts baseball through the dream-like perspective of a man riddled with doubts and uncertainties about life. 

The poem takes the reader through a stream of consciousness description of baseball. It focuses primarily on the speaker who is watching a ball move through the air. He questions it, himself, the game, and what will happen if he does and does not catch the ball. Everything is up in the air throughout this poem. It acts as a metaphor for life and major life events that determine our paths. If the speaker catches or does not catch the ball two very different things will happen. 

You can read the full poem here.


Structure of A Poem about Baseballs 

A Poem about Baseballs’ by Denis Johnson is an eleven stanza poem that is separated into sets of three and four lines. The first, eighth and eleventh stanzas all contain three lines and the remaining eight have four. Four line stanzas are known as quatrains and three-line stanzas are known as tercets. Johnson did not choose to make use of a specific rhyme scheme in ‘A Poem About Baseballs’. He also did not use a metrical pattern to unify the lines into a specific rhythm. But, that does not mean that the poem is without either. 

One of the first things a reader will notice when beginning this poem is that Johnson does not use capitalization at any point throughout the eleven stanzas. This includes not capitalizing the first person pronoun “I”. There are also lines, such as two and three of the second stanza that are in italics in the original text.  


Literary Devices in A Poem about Baseballs 

Johnson makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘A Poem about Baseballs’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, anaphora, and enjambment. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “him,” “he,” and “he” in line two of the first stanza and “where” and “wall” in line two of the sixth stanza. 

Johnson also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. For example, lines two and three of the second stanza both of which start with “too fast” or lines one and two of the sixth stanza which begins with “hands”. 

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. In this case, a close reader can find examples throughout ‘A Poem about Baseballs,’ for instance the transition between lines one and two of the seventh stanza and lines two and three of the ninth. 


Analysis of A Poem about Baseballs 

Stanzas One 

for years the scenes bustled


alive. then he felt real, and slammed

In the first stanza of ‘A Poem about Baseballs,’ the speaker begins by introducing the reader to what appears to be a dream sequence invoking baseball. The speaker describes “him,” an unknown male character who is suffering. He “dreamed he was / alive”. This allowed him to feel real until he slammed awake “screaming” in sheets wet from sweat. 


Stanza Two

awake in the wet sheets screaming


are gone. four blocks away

It is in the second stanza that Johnson introduces the reader to the use of italics to add extra emphasis to certain parts of the text. This is increased further through the use of repetition and the stream of consciousness style of the lines. Each one fades into the next, making the lines feel less like single thoughts or defined ideas than they do a continuous line of recollection of the experience. The world is moving around this person and he is looking, metaphorically, into the distance after a baseball. 


Stanzas Three and Four 

a baseball was a dot against
the sky, and he thought, my
too fast from the clouds,
and night is dropped and

In the third and fourth stanzas of ‘A Poem about Baseballs,’ the speaker describes the movement of the baseball through the sky and the thoughts of the man who was watching. Johnson uses techniques like caesura and enjambment in order to move one line into the next and encourage the reader to move at a steady pace from stanza to stanza. For example, in order to conclude the phrase “i will” which ends the third stanza a reader has to move immediately to the fourth. 

In these lines, the poet also brings in natural images of clouds, snow, and the night. There is the possibility of catching the ball, regaining some control over this unknown but clearly emotional situation. But, the speaker’s words convey the man’s belief that he won’t be able to do it. His “glove is too big” and he’s sure to drop the ball. 


Stanzas Five and Six 

snatched back like a huge
joke. is that the ball, or is
begins. should i move
forward, or back, or will the ball

In the next two stanzas of ‘A Poem about Baseballs,’ the speaker presents the reader with the first in a series of questions. The speaker presents the man’s thoughts as confused and scattered. He isn’t sure if its the ball or a bird or why it’s moving in the way it is. He is concerned that he will miss it and “the edges are gone”. This last line adds to the dream-like quality of the poem. 

He describes how his “hands melt into the walls” and his “hands do not end where the wall / begins”. This strange landscape of perception that he’s experiencing is scary, but it is also engaging. It allows a reader to experience something of this man’s disorientation and confusion. 


Stanzas Seven and Eight 

come right to me? i know i will
miss, because i always miss when it
my hand, and i am the wall. my
arm is the syringe and thus i

In the next two stanzas of ‘A Poem about Baseballs,’ the speaker expresses his determination that he’s going to miss the ball because he always misses it “when it / takes so long”. He feels lost, unable to regain control over the situation. A reason for this disorientation is presented in the eighth stanza with the introduction of images related to a hospital. There is an example of a metaphor in the last line of the eighth stanza where the speaker says that his “arm is the syringe”. This transitions the reader perfectly into the ninth stanza. 


Stanzas Nine, Ten, and Eleven 

become the nurse, i am you,
nurse. if he gets
the ball, our side will
be up, and i will have to bat,
and i might strike out.

In the ninth stanza, he adds that he has “become the nurse, i am you”. This adds context to the poem. The speaker could be in the hospital suffering from some kind of ailment. A reader with contextual knowledge of Johnson’s life might recall that he spent a period of his life as a drug addict and could, therefore, be relating this character’s experience to his own. 

Another question follows, considering the nature of the game and likely alluding to the nature of life itself. What comes next and how should he deal with it? He suggests slowing down at one point, but the results don’t seem very desirable. The poem endings memorably with the speaker suggesting success. He might catch the ball and then “our side will  / be up” and he’ll have to bat. This leads to the inevitable possibility that they might “strike out”. This is a metaphor, again, for life itself. He might eventually have to stand up and face the crowd, act in his own best interests, and that of others. Catching the ball would mean that he had some responsibility for everyone else. 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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