William Carlos Williams [1883-1963] was at the height of his powers when he published his most famous collection of verse, Spring & All, in 1923. Poems from that book have pleased and confounded poetry readers for 90 years. The first edition was printed in Dijon, France by Maurice Darantiere--who had printed Joyce's Ulysses in 1922, as well as various other Modernist works by Gertrude Stein and others--in a format which included prose bridges between the poems. The prose bridges were dropped from nearly every subsequent reprinting of the collection. Williams himself seems not to have felt that the book warranted an accurate reproduction during his lifetime.
I studied Williams's work in depth during my senior year [1968-69] in American Literature studies at UC Berkeley, with Professor James Breslin [1935-1996], in a small-group seminar reserved for department majors. We devoted several weeks to a reading and discussion of Spring & All, analyzing individual poems, and considering the work's meaning as a whole, both as a separate aesthetic statement, and within the context of early American Modernism. Breslin could be skeptical of Williams's at times amateurish approach to serious literary matters, as well as his tendency to be vague in his poetry about crucial aspects of his vision. Not everyone in the class shared this attitude.
The poem "The crowd at the ball game" was originally published in The Dial, August 1923. Williams was 39. He'd been a practicing physician in Paterson, New Jersey, and had published four previous books of poems. However, in a very real sense, he was completely unknown. His involvement in the artistic milieus of his time was limited by his physical isolation, and his non-literary background put him at somewhat of a disadvantage with respect to his orientation to the avant garde. Much of his inspiration would appear in retrospect to have been intuitive and exploratory, though it is clear he had a firm grasp of the implications of the latest artistic and literary works during this period--albeit at a safe distance. He was not an academic; neither was he a bohemian. He was a practical professional, living a comfortable middle-class life in suburban New Jersey, raising a family and writing poems on his typewriter at moments stolen from his busy schedule working at the local hospital, and in the working-class neighborhoods of his clientele.
Living close to New York City, he would certainly have had the opportunity to take in the occasional game at Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, or Ebbets Field. During these years just after World War One, professional baseball was rapidly growing in popularity, and was already becoming our national sport. Indeed, large stadium sports was a still a relatively new phenomenon in the world at this point, and the gathering of tens of thousands of excited fans was clearly an expression of a new democratic spirit, which cut across class and ethnic backgrounds. Popular media--sports media--was in its infancy, but had already, by 1922, become big business, drawing huge fan bases. Babe Ruth had been sold by the Red Sox to the Yankees in 1920, and in that year his 54 homers surpassed his own previous homer record of 29 the year before, and he would hit 59 round-trippers the year after. The baseball world had been rocked by the Black Sox scandal in 1919. Big League Baseball was a sensation.
Consider the photo below, taken during the 1911 World Series. Thousands of civilians in dark suits and "boaters" (straw hats), unable to get into the Polo Grounds, stand in awed anticipation looking at a public scoreboard. There's hardly room for the trolley to pass! It's almost like the crowds at St. Peter's watching for the election of a Pope. Can you imagine, in our time, people being this queued up for a baseball game?
New York City - Crowd Watching Baseball Scoreboard during World Series game in 1911
[This probably would have been on October 25, 1911, during a game won by the New York Giants over the Philadelphia Athletics at the Polo Grounds.]
Williams's poem begins straightforwardly enough, with a perfect descriptive commentary about the spirit of American curiosity and fascination--The crowd at the ball game is moved uniformly by a spirit of uselessness which delights them. Certainly a quotidian observation about the appeal of innocent public fun, which is followed by the action of the game itself--all the exciting detail of the chase and the escape, the error, the flash of genius--all to no end save beauty the eternal. The setting of the lines is by natural phrasing, casual conversational sentences divided into clauses, the rhythms of speaking, relaxed and natural.
But at this point the poem turns serious, even a little spooky. So in detail they, the crowd, are beautiful--then, for this to be warned against puts us on notice that the atmosphere of cheerful optimism is to be set aside for a darker meditation about the crowd. They, the crowd, are saluted and defied--which seems to refer to "this"--a nominative which literally has no name. "This" then becomes "it"--it is alive, venomous--it smiles grimly, its words cut--the flashy female with her mother gets it--the Jew gets it straight--but what this "it" is, Williams never says in so many words.
The "it" of the poem seems to refer to some force or power or tendency in the crowd, or to the power of propaganda, or to the power of capital, to sway or influence it, or to some hungry desire in humanity itself. It is deadly, terrifying--it is the Inquisition, the Revolution--clearly Williams is suggesting a negative force in history which has the potential to turn the masses of humanity into terrifying instruments of evil, destruction and woe. On the one hand, the masses of people in their recreation may appear innocent and happy, but Williams sees in their gathered numbers a wildfire of destructive potential.
World War One had ended in November 1918--only 4 short years before. The Russian Revolution had occurred, and the Communists had consolidated their position and had established firm control. Eliot's The Waste Land  had appeared the year before. The era of widespread prosperity had begun, and there was artistic excitement everywhere. Socio-political upheaval seemed about to convulse nations and cultures with new ways of living and thinking about the world. It is this excitement and fervor which is both the driver and the context which propels Williams's poem.
The terrifying force of history--it is beauty itself that lives day by day in them--idly--not only in their work and productive activity, but in their idleness, their play. This is the power of their faces--this thing which is reflected in their individual faces, but also in their communal aspect.
Here Williams seems to break off his argument--it is summer, it is the solstice--the crowd is cheering, the crowd is laughing--we're returned to the immediate reality of the crowd, its chaotic convulsive roars and raucous laughter. Williams sets up a series of stepped qualifications: in detail, permanently, seriously / without thought. The "it"--the subject of stanzas 7 through 15 is abruptly altered to the weather (summer, the solstice--the longest day of the year, when the sun is at its highest point)--it is summer. Almost in the sense of a performance, the poem quiets down to a meditative poised reflection.
The poem's shape resembles a swept wave of sound flowing over and through the crowd of onlookers. The power of public opinion, of any mass movement, in any revolution of taste or political sentiment--unstoppable, exhilarating, terrifying, thoughtless. In the end, the speaker is simply numb, mentally exhausted, in a state of abstraction. The power of the mob--which Mencken had so eloquently satirized--as the "boobs"--or "booboisie"--to change history in unpredictable and frightening ways, had already, by 1923, influenced thinkers and artists to regard with awe and apprehension the probable changes approaching just over the horizon.
Just seven years later, the dark cloud of economic hardship would arrive, and the nightmares which some prescient few had foreseen, would come to pass. Williams's poem is not a celebration of America's favorite national pastime, but a dire premonition of the meaning of mass hysteria, of the power of media to manipulate on a mass scale, to promote hatred and fear and violence. Mass media may be the ultimate game.
"It" is a placeholder for the forces of history which roll over us, sweeping all along in a tsunami of public inertia, forces which dwarf individual pockets of resistance. Art and literature may try to stand against them, or join with them in the march of events. This was what Williams was thinking about in 1922-23. Not baseball, but the larger question of the forces of history.
The crowd at the ball game
is moved uniformly
by a spirit of uselessness
which delights them—
all the exciting detail
of the chase
and the escape, the error
the flash of genius—
all to no end save beauty
So in detail they, the crowd,
to be warned against
saluted and defied—
It is alive, venomous
it smiles grimly
its words cut—
The flashy female with her
mother, gets it—
The Jew gets it straight— it
is deadly, terrifying—
It is the Inquisition, the
It is beauty itself
day by day in them
the power of their faces
It is summer, it is the solstice
the crowd is
cheering, the crowd is laughing