A story went up this morning on ESPN.com about Dirk Nowitzki’s experimenting this summer with a quicker release on his shot. On the surface, this seems normal, right? Dirk’s getting older. He’s never been the quickest guy on the court, and the fact that he’s seven feet tall is always going to give him an advantage when it comes to getting his shot off, but he’s 36 now, and he’s visibly slowing down. NBA defenses are more sophisticated than they’ve ever been, and Dirk is a gravitational force, an offensive system all by himself. He understands innately that he won’t be the same player next year that he was last year because time is a horrible, relentless force that is destroying him little by little every day. He understands that he needs to change in order to exist. At some point, he will stop playing basketball. That’s when he’ll stop working on his jump shot.
This got me thinking about poetry, which is a thing I care about. It got me thinking about art and about how we imagine ourselves. Dirk Nowitzki is a person who has been praised throughout his life for his ability to shoot a basketball. Dirk shooting a basketball is one of the truly iconic images in basketball, like Tim Hardaway crossing somebody over or Dennis Rodman grabbing a rebound in traffic with his elbows flying around like swords (oh my God, these references, I am a million years old). Imagine you have lived the first 36 years of your life, and over that time, you have become immensely famous all over the world for your ability to do one thing. Now imagine saying this to yourself, “I’m getting old; I’m going to start doing this thing faster.”
When you are praised for something, how do you respond? What do you internalize? In your life, in anything you do, when do you feel like you are done? In basketball, there is a clear goal. One imagines that Dirk’s main reason for working on a quicker release is actually to improve the odds that he will be able to keep winning basketball games. A quicker release has tangible outcomes on the game itself. It means more space for his teammates, more indecision by the players defending him. He may have personal reasons for doing it—in fact, I’m sure he does—but these can neatly be folded into established goals we all readily accept.
Why do I write poetry? I don’t exactly know the answer. I know that I am uneasy about praise. I feel like I notice other people writing the same poems over and over again, seeking the same sorts of praise with which they’ve grown familiar. It worries me that I might be blind to this in myself. In his Letters on Cézanne, Rilke wrote,
And someone told the old man in Aix that he was “famous.” He, however, knew better within himself and let the speaker continue. But standing in front of his work, one comes back to the thought that every recognition (with very rare, unmistakable exceptions) should make one mistrustful of one’s own work. Basically, if it is good, one can’t live to see it recognized: otherwise it’s just half good and not reckless enough …
What are we supposed to do with this? Sometimes I think I’m writing to attempt to communicate something, but will I ever be able to believe I am being heard? Or if I am only trying to understand myself, why do I have this impulse to share it? Why do I want to read the poems in front of an audience if, after it is over, I won’t be able to accept the idea that it might have meant something to them?
But wait. Look at the parenthetical there in what Rilke says. Consider the “very rare, unmistakable exceptions.” Think about Dirk’s jump shot, already as close to perfection as is possible. Think about the impulse to question that. To say into the uncertain void, “You know something, I think I can do better,” even though tinkering with it might fuck everything up. I am coming to a conclusion here that feels pretty obvious to me, which is that I write for the sake of the “unmistakable exceptions” in the hopes of being heard. It is worth fucking it up in order to know whether or not it is real.
— The Buzzard