Basketball poems bugged Quincy Troupe for a long time, particularly his own. No poem he’d ever read – or written – captured the speed of basketball, until he wrote an ode to Earvin "Magic" Johnson Jr. in 1985.
“They were all just too damn slow,” said Troupe, a former pro basketball player and the first Poet Laureate of California. “Basketball is quick, quick, quick.”
After 20 drafts – the rewriting continued even after A Poem for Magic was published – Troupe finally (maybe) is finished with the poem. Troupe compared versions at a craft talk this spring at Poets House in New York City and read the final version from his 1996 book Avalanche.
My eyes are full of basketball, open and closed, during the March to June stretch of NCAA and NBA finals. (Thanks goodness the WNBA then takes over for the summer.) But Troupe’s reading is the first time my ears have ever been full of basketball. Not just sounds that conjure associations, squeaky sneakers or a bouncing ball. But an earful of the transcendence of players (or poets) who master the mechanics and then elevate an art to a level where the rest of us mere mortals can only just admire, slack-jawed and inspired.
Troupe’s free verse frenzy of “herk & jerk” captures the rhythm and images of how Johnson “wiled your way to glory” as the point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers. Tall, agile and a consummate team player, Johnson was one of the game’s greatest passers as well a potent scorer: “head bobbing everwhichaway/up & down, you see everything on the court.”
All game long, fans expected surprise from Magic. Highlights of Johnson’s greatest passes capture for me the rare thrill as a poet of suddenly connecting two words in a transcendent way. Those moments are even more impressive to me than Johnson’s five NBA championships and three MVP awards.
Troupe, the author of nine volumes of poetry, literally opens up the spacing of the poem in the last version and adds more enjambments to mirror Magic’s mastery of change of pace. A long indent sets off “a new-style fusion of shake-&-bake/ energy”, with energy enjambed to the next line.
Forty-three lines into “A Poem for Magic,” a “we” suddenly appears for just three lines: "in victory, we suddenly sense your glorious uplift/ your urgent need to be champion/ & so we cheer with you, rejoice with you."
And disappears, just as fast, in the next line, indented so far it almost slides off the page “for this quicksilver, quicksilver, / quicksilver moment of fame.” But that quicksilver moment is just enough connection to keep us coming back, to play or appreciate the arts that elevate.
Return to BAP tomorrow to learn why Troupe decided Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan was a villanelle and what Jean Paul Sartre and a busted left knee has to do with it. Also email me firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in channeling your inner Phil Jackson and pairing a poem or book of poetry for a player in the NBA playoffs or WNBA players just ramping up their season.
Jackson thoughtfully chose books for his players for long road trips. Whatever they did with the books was their business, but it’s hard to argue the tactics of a coach who won 11 championships, six with the Chicago Bulls and five after with the Los Angeles Lakers. That doesn’t include two with the Knicks as a player in the 1970s. I’ll include the best pairings in a blog this week, and of course credit assists. Explain why and how you’d like to be identified. At present, BAP cannot also offer a sneaker contract.
Catherine Woodard has played coed, pickup basketball in New York City for three decades. Her poems have appeared in Poet Lore, Southern Poetry Review, RHINO and other journals. She worked to restore Poetry in Motion to the NYC subways and is a board member of the Poetry Society of America. Woodard was a fellow at the Hambidge Center in Georgia in 2012 and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in 2011. Woodard has a MFA in poetry from The New School and MS in journalism from Columbia University.