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.