The students in Nick Twemlow’s college poetry workshop could be surprised this week to be reading the debut work of an enigmatic new voice: Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Earlier this week, Bryant announced he would be retiring from professional basketball after 20 seasons. But rather than releasing a statement through a publicist or holding a news conference, Bryant revealed his decision in 52 lines of free verse.
Slam poetry suddenly had new meaning.
The news from Bryant, 37, one of the most famous athletes in the world, shook the professional sports community. But unbeknown to many, it made similar, if smaller, waves in the world of poetry.
“It’s not the worst poem I’ve ever read,” said Twemlow, a poet and professor at Coe College, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, whose gentle half-praise of Bryant’s effort echoed the sentiments of many other writers.
Bryant may not be Shakespeare. But for all the inelegant lines and ingenuous sentiments in his poem, poets were intrigued and charmed that Bryant, one of the world’s most famous athletes, would choose the form.
It was an exciting rare moment in which a poem entered mainstream culture.
“One thought I had initially, without even seeing it, is that it’ll be the most widely disseminated poem of the last decade or in recent history,” said Jane Yeh, a poet and lecturer at the Open University in Milton Keynes, England. “No one reads poetry.”
Instinctively, poets and writing professors have begun to ponder the Bryant poem, and critique it, just as they would the work of a peer or student. Many had the same first question: Why? Twemlow said he often poses the question to his own students, who tell him that poetry — in which the rules of language and narrative can be subverted — represents a more comfortable vehicle than prose for expressing exuberant emotion.
“That is how you break up with the love of your life, right?” said David Gordon, a creative writing professor at Pratt Institute. “If you think of someone breaking off a 30-year marriage, they don’t Instagram it.”
Bryant’s use of verse may not be wholly surprising if one recalls his youthful forays into hip-hop. In 2000, when he was 21, he released a song titled “K.O.B.E.” that featured such lines as, “I don’t know, yo, these women come and go. Like the wind they blow, how do I know it’s you for sure?”
At the same time, Bryant’s literary track record has been mixed. When Phil Jackson was the coach of the Lakers, he bought books every season for the team’s players. Bryant received several over the years — like “The White Boy Shuffle” by Paul Beatty and “Montana 1948” by Larry Watson — but he and Jackson often joked that they were left unread.
Poets have had their own reading recommendations for Bryant. Don Share, the editor of Poetry magazine, said he would advise Bryant to read two works. The first was “New Addresses,” a book of poetry by Kenneth Koch, which contains a series of epistolary poems, similar to Bryant’s, like “To Piano Lessons” and “To Jewishness.” The other was “The Victory Odes” of the ancient Greek poet Pindar, which Share called “the most famous poems of athleticism in Western culture.” He thought Bryant could be inspired.
Many poets were struck by how purely Bryant’s obsessive personality came through in his poem. Twemlow said Bryant’s poem reminded him and his wife, also a poet, of “Whoso List to Hunt,” a famous 16th-century sonnet by Thomas Wyatt. In it, a deer hunt serves as metaphor for a helpless pursuit of a woman.
“I would tell him, “Look at how, in 14 lines, this guy managed to condense this feeling of incredible obsession — and not only a recognition of it, but a recognition that he can no longer pursue it.”
Bryant, some poets agreed, could have shortened his poem and narrowed its focus, allowing him to dig in to the most intriguing subjects and his real motivations. They also noted that his constant use of abstract nouns was a weakness.
“He uses mind, body, spirit, heart,” Yeh said. “Those kinds of things are no-nos in poetry because they’re empty words in a sense. They’re literally huge clichés.”
Other lines and stylistic decisions left the poets somewhat more impressed — even if they wondered whether Bryant quite meant them, whether they emerged through happenstance, or whether they were directives from a ghostwriter.
Gary Hoenig, the editorial director at The Players’ Tribune, where the poem was published, said the poem was Bryant’s idea from start to finish.
“If you spend time with him, you’d recognize the ferocity of his intellect and independence,” Hoenig said. “We did not change a single word.”
Several poets, when asked to name the strongest image, pointed to Bryant’s use of gym socks to bookend the poem, which, unlike heart and soul, represent a concrete, tactile detail. Many appreciated that Bryant did not attempt rhyme.
Yeh noted his use of ampersands, a punctuation mark with a rich history in 20th-century American poetry, which can evoke countercultural poets of the Beat Generation and other anti-establishment writers like E. E. Cummings and Amiri Baraka.
Pointing to the later stanzas, Share praised some of the rhythmic musicality that emerges in certain lines. At home, he read aloud one part — “And that’s OK. I’m ready to let you go. I want you to know now.” — and puzzled over why it felt so familiar.
“You know what that rhythm is? It’s a heartbeat,” Share said. “It speeds up and gets under control, like he’s calibrating his heartbeat. That’s what an athlete knows how to do. To me, that’s skillful. If I were his teacher, I’d say, ‘Do a lot of this.’”
Twemlow, meanwhile, focused on the fourth stanza, where a line that ends with a period — known as an end-stopped line — helps highlight and isolate the next one, where Bryant wrote, “I only saw myself.”
The line, in a way, seemed to encapsulate the solipsistic, inward-looking nature of the poem, which, in many ways, could describe Bryant’s nature as a player.
“His poem is sort of strangely missing any kind of human beings,” Twemlow said with a chuckle. “He’s anthropomorphizing basketball. It’s the only person in his life.”
Bryant’s many neglected teammates could line up to support that premise.
Criticism aside, poets said they enjoyed having an unexpected spotlight on the art form, a fresh voice to analyze. Gordon joked that it was nice to “imagine a world in which stadiums are filled with people screaming for poetry, along with basketball.”
That seems unlikely. But if Bryant wanted to further explore the world of poetry, Gordon advised him to be wary.
“Much like basketball, poetry can be a harsh mistress,” he said. “If he’s looking for an equally obsessive and demanding and much less rewarding career, then he’s found one.”