Saturday, February 3, 2018

Poetry Night at the Ballpark

Poetry Night at the Ballpark and Other Scenes from an Alternative America
© 2015 Bill Kauffman
442 pages

 “Lift up your hearts, friends – America ain’t dead yet.”  For thirty years, Bill Kauffman has been blowing raspberries at or haranguing the politics of empire – mocking and condemning all things swollen and centralized, and cheering on the local and small.  This interestingly-titled volume collects a diverse amount of Kauffman’s writings, from  biographical sketches of eccentric American figures to literary reviews, with all manner of opinion pieces in between. It is an anthology that celebrates the little America outside of New York and Los Angeles, the America that breathes when the television is turned off.  If you have read any Kauffman before, or even read a review of Kauffman – or for that matter, the first two sentences of this review –  the general temper won’t  be a surprise. But Poetry Night at the Ballpark, while consistent with Kauffman’s usual spirit,  collects so many different kinds of writing that even his fans will find surprises here, and delivered with his usual fondness for amusing or provocative titles. Some of the sectional collections are definitely unexpected, like a series written about holidays (in which he champions Arbor Day over Earth Day, for instance)  and…some space-themed writing.   The sections called “Pols”, “Home Sweet Home”, and “The America That Lost” are more of his usual fare.  I’ve been reading Kauffman’s columns at the Front Porch Republic and other sources to have seen  and remembered a few of these – a favorite is 2012’s “Who Needs a President?” in which he revisits the antifederalist arguments against an executive office.

In Poetry Night at the Ballpark, Kuaffman introduces a multitude of forgotten individuals, all with their quirks, and recounts stories from American history which have been largely forgotten.  Take those arrogant Roosevelts – T.R.  tried to inflict a new kind of spelling on the entire nation, in one of the first examples of the Oval Office obviously unhinging whoever sat in it.  (Actually, considering the west wing was constructed during Teddyboy’s reign, maybe he was already unhinged and imbued it with his spirit.)    Franklin Roosevelt also moved Thanksgiving hither and yon hoping to create more shopping days for Christmas,  beginning the occasion’s slow  but total conquest by Christmas.  As varied as the essays are, they’re reliably grounded in Kauffman’s love for the small, local, and particular, be it movies or baseball. He begins  in and titles his  book   at the local ballpark , cheering on his hometown’s boys,  but has no use whatsoever for the major leagues, whose local connections are abstract, and who are oriented  towards money than  love of the game;   sports and home intersect in  his section on movies, where he calls for films that tell local stories with a local flavor, and comments at length on Hoosiers as a small-town classic.

I make no secret of liking Kauffman, and for me this book was like encountering him  at a bar and sticking around to  hear some salty stories of odd characters and fun stories, as well as some good old-fashioned belly-aching about the soulless suits in power.  It’s not as focused as his other work, so it’s best read by people who have already encountered Kauffman before – unless a first-timer opens the book in the store, finds themselves drawn in by his playful pen, and has to sit down to experience a bit more.

If you'd like a taste of Kauffman, one of my favorite speeches by him is called "Love is the Answer to Empire" That title links to a written version.

" [Walt Whitman] understood that any healthy political or social movement has to begin, has to have its heart and soul, at the grass roots. In Kansas, not on K Street.

"And it has to be based in love. Love not of some remote abstraction, some phantasm that exists only on the television screen—Ford Truck commercials and Lee Greenwood songs—but love of near things, things you can really know and experience. The love of a place and its people: their food, their games, their literature, their music, their smiles.

"I am a localist, a regionalist. To me, the glory of America comes not from its weaponry or wars or a mass culture that is equal parts stupidity, vulgarity, and cynical cupidity—one part 'The View,' one part Miley Cyrus, and a dollop of Rush Limbaugh—rather, it is in the flowering of our regions, our local  cultures. Our vitality is in the little places—city neighborhoods, town squares—the places that mean nothing to those who run this country but that give us our pith, our meaning."


  1. I have never read Kauffman but I think that I would enjoy reading him. I like unusual and quirky stories about people and places. There is indeed something to be said about focusing on the local.

    1. He's definitely fun! His first book for me was "Look Homeward, America", but I think I'd encountered him via online articles or interviews before.

  2. That little quote made me chuckle...I'll check out his speech for sure. This topic of localism has interested me lately, not just in politics but in culture, and it would be interesting to read someone who's studied the topic.

    1. He's not as easy to find on youtube, but that's how I originally heard that speech. He's regularly featured online at various blogs and magazines, particularly The American Conservative.


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