Kobe Bryant has never been a man to know his limitations, and so it was entirely appropriate for him to publicly acknowledge his own mortality in one of the oldest, most respected and least understood art forms, the poem. This is what poetry has become in this day and age: not the pinnacle of artistic expression it was for Donne or Keats or Yeats, but the vessel you reach for when shit gets like, too real, man. But props, Kobe: This has to be the first time a poem crashed a website.
In his “Dear Basketball” ode on The Players’ Tribune, Bryant announced he would retire at the end of the season, but he gave us no great insight into either himself or the human condition. It was written in free verse, the refuge of college freshmen. (Come to think of it, maybe this is the best argument for upping the age limit for the NBA, so players can get a couple years of college under their belt to better prepare for retirement poetry.) In places, it glances against rhyme (“socks” and “shots” in the opening stanza; “go” and “know” in the third-to-last; “socks” and “clock” in the penultimate one), which is the only thing worse – from a poetic standpoint – than regular undisciplined free verse.
I’ll tell you, when I first heard Bryant had announced his retirement in a poem, I had a brief and thrilling thought: What if it’s amazing? What if the real reason behind Bryant’s precipitous fall-off in performance this season was not time catching up with him, but late nights spent poring over volumes of Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Alexander and Cornelius Eady in preparation for writing this, his own basketball eulogy?
But of course, no. As poetry it’s a total and utter failure but honestly, something like 95 percent of poems are failures – and that’s probably generous. Writing genuinely good poetry is incredibly, unremittingly, unrewardingly difficult. It’s a grind to hone your craft in a field that so many think of as frivolous and, even if you do, success is predicated to a ridiculous extent on luck, timing and other things completely outside your control.
Sound like the life of a professional basketball player? It is, minus the millions of dollars. But in this way, Bryant’s decision to say what he had to say with poetry is completely in line with the slow, grueling descent to the end of his career. Dylan Thomas, certainly, would approve of the way he is raging against the dying of the light. Kobe could not stop for Death, so Death is kindly stopping for Kobe. And so on.
To engage with poetry at this moment, when his basketball skills have begun to fail him to the tune of 31 percent shooting on 16.7 field goal attempts per game, is to reassert his control and his faultless self-confidence. Poetry certainly concerns itself with myth and mythologizing, but the good stuff generally eschews self-mythologizing, instead hewing to a tirelessly critical assessment of the self.
That’s the greatest missed opportunity here, because it’s clear that Bryant didn’t become Kobe without that kind of self-critical mindset. We just don’t get to see it in a public-facing way, not for real. The late-night solo shooting sessions after bad losses; the Vines of grueling rehab; the self-flagellating Facebook posts: there are grains of truth in them, but they’re also theater, not poetry.
The thing is, there is poetry for Kobe Bryant at this moment; it’s just not what he wrote. James Dickey’s “For the Last Wolverine” tells the story of an apex predator going extinct. The wolverine of the title – unlike Bryant – is going to die alone and uncelebrated, but the pure rage for his way of life is recognizable: “he still will be / For a little while still will be stopping // The flakes in the air with a look, / Surrounding himself with the silence / Of whitening snarls.”
What the narrator of Dickey’s poem wants is something bigger than what the wolverine is going to get, “something gigantic legendary … SCREAMING that it cannot die.” What Bryant is going to get during his farewell tour for the rest of the season will be accolades equal to Dickey’s vision of what he wishes for that wolverine. Visiting arenas will be seas of 24 jerseys, the visitors’ lineup announcement will drown in cheers. His actual play on the court will continue to receive derision in the meantime.
But both will miss the hard, mean, futile resilience that the end of Kobe’s career is bringing into sharp focus. As far as poetry goes, that’s what’s worth valorizing, more than the rings or anything else. It’s the bloody, difficult guts of what Kobe is ultimately about, in both his virtues and his vices. It is what Dickey celebrates when he writes of
The pact of the “blind swallowing
Thing,” with himself, to eat
The world, and not to be driven off it
Until it is gone, even if it takes
Bryant’s on-court performance is telling us: it is gone. He is being driven off it, but this poem, this shitty poem, is its own refusal to acknowledge any shortcomings. There couldn’t be anything more Kobe.