“A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,”
These opening lines of “Ars Poetica” by Archibald MacLeish were also the first words I read in my first class of Freshman English at Williams College in 1959.
They did not move me.
But they came back to me today, while reading a Jerry Brewer column in the Sports section of the Washington Post, on a prominent present pastime for sports fans during the pandemic of no sports at all: picking the GOAT, the Greatest Of All Time for every major sport.
Brewer was, quite rightly, making the case that any list of potential GOATs of the National Basketball Association must include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (along with more conventional nominees like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, LeBron James and from old goats like me, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West.)
Of all the many skills and achievements each of these matchless and unforgettable athletes shared, Kareem killed in the most important of all: winning. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (and, his birth name Lewis Alcindor) and his teams won more often, more consistently than maybe any other team athlete in any organized competition.
And yet, Brewer has to argue to get him on the list of NBA GOATs!
Almost as stupid as trying to pick among the nominees. Bird or Jordan? Magic or King James or West? Sunshine or fresh air?
What is intended to be an honor is, in fact, an indignity. It asserts not only that greatness can be graded, but that human packages of skills and inspirations exist only in comparison to others.
Greatness does not need us to put it in a frame, it, as the poet said (had I been listening), “should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit.”
Who would think to identify the best apple in an orchard?