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Culture

ESSAY: Muhammad Ali, An American Poet

Clay comes out to meet Liston And Liston starts to retreat. If Liston goes back any further He’ll end up in a ringside seat. Clay swings with a left Clay swings with a right Just look at young Cassius Carry the fight. Liston keeps backing But there’s not enough room. It’s a matter of time. There Clay lowers the boom. Now Clay swings with a right What a beautiful swing And the punch raises the bear Clear out of the ring. Liston is still rising And the ref wears a frown For he can’t start counting Till Sonny comes down. Now Liston disappears from view The crowd is getting frantic But our radar stations have picked him up He’s somewhere over the Atlantic. Who would have thought When they came to the fight That they’d witness the launching Of a human satellite? Yes, the crowd did not dream When they laid down their money That they would see A total eclipse of the Sonny! Ali’s poem before his 1964 victory in Miami Beach against Sonny Liston

When Muhammad Ali died on June 3rd, we lost a great American poet. As agile and hypnotic as he was in the ring, Ali was just as deft with his voice. His linguistic turns of phrase—“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee;” “this is no jive, the fight will end in five”—are inseparable from the images we have of him. They are, perhaps, the single most important reason we remember him so clearly, even for those, like me, who were born after his prime.

Ali didn't write poems so they could get lost in books.

Ali didn’t write poems so they could get lost in books. He wrote poems that were meant to be recited, out loud, by one man: Muhammad Ali, which is a good lesson for any aspiring poet. It’s easy to breathe in the Delphi-like fumes of poetry’s seriousness and start to sound like a James Earl Jones impersonator, or to put words down on paper that read like Hallmark cards carved into granite.

Ali’s publishing forum—a television camera and a microphone—left no space for such self-obscurity, nor did his sense of purpose. Poetry became the way he sparred with a white audience who disapproved of him. Like his later opponent George Foreman, Ali’s audience presumably had the power in their relationship. They made the rules. They wrote the checks. If they hated him so much, why didn’t they just stop tuning in, buying tickets, and placing bets?

Foreman was too strong, maybe the hardest puncher in the history of the sport. So what do you do? Let him hit you. They hate that you talk too much? Talk more, and moreover, speak in a genre that they feel is theirs.

What, after all, could be whiter than poetry? A mandatory school subject replete with dead white men and force-fed to children as a moral value, poetry was the perfect medium for Ali to turn the mainstream culture against itself. He didn’t write prose poems in cutting-edge Beatnik parlance either; he wrote poems in old “traditional” forms: couplets and ballads with hard, crunchy end rhymes and meters that would have made Yeats stand up and clap.

Clay swings with a left, Clay swings with a right, Just look at young Cassius carry the fight.

Via verse, Ali put earworms of his own mythos into the airwaves, where even his greatest detractors could not resist them. He was called the Fifth Beatle as an insult, but it was an appropriate moniker. Both Beatle and boxer made catchy tunes you couldn’t get out of your head, especially if you hated them, and because of their structures, they ring forever louder than the prosaic vitriol spouted against them.

Poetry is such a good strategy for brand management that I'm honestly kind of shocked that no other athletes seem to have picked it up

Poetry is such a good strategy for brand management that I’m honestly kind of shocked that no other athletes seem to have picked it up. Whenever we hear of a ballplayer writing poetry, an Eton Thomas or a J. J. Redick, it’s a source of mild, off-screen embarrassment, instead of what it should be: a weapon for messaging. With the rise of Twitter, Vine, and Snapchat, we should be hearing the haiku of Russell Westbrook, the couplets of Cam Newton, and the sonnets of YasielPuig.

Or maybe they just need a little training? Since I’m in Miami already, perhaps I’ll open a 5th Street Gym-style school: the Ali Poetry Dojo. Rhyme and meter are simple subjects, but Ali’s sense of metaphor and flair for delivery would be nearly impossible to teach.

Speaking to a reporter before the Liston fight, Ali said, “People think I talk too much. That’s why I got these.” And he held up his fists. The reporter daftly replied, “And they represent your thinking?” Without missing a beat, Ali said, “They represent dynamite,” and then made the sound of dynamite exploding.

Poetry has rarely been as much fun since.

**Scott Cunningham is the founder and Director of O, Miami