The Poetry of Muhammad Ali

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Clay standing over the defeated Sonny Liston

The warrior poet is one of the more remarkable figures in history. In the English-speaking world, their zenith came with the horrors of World War One, when Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen & others veered away from patronising the soldier’s noble death with high-blown lyricism, & got down to expositing the true danger & desperation of combat. Fifty years later the world encountered a different kind of warrior poet, the boxer called Cassius Clay / Muhammad Ali who like a high-ranked bardic-trained Gaulish druid passed judgement on the age of Civil Rights.

I am America.
I am the part you won’t recognize.
But get used to me:
Black, confident, cocky.
My name, not yours.
My religion, not yours.
My goals, my own.
Get used to me.
Muhammad Ali


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LAST NIGHT I HAD A DREAM

Last night I had a dream, When I got to Africa,
I had one hell of a rumble.
I had to beat Tarzan’s behind first,
For claiming to be King of the Jungle.
For this fight, I’ve wrestled with alligators,
I’ve tussled with a whale.
I done handcuffed lightning
And throw thunder in jail.
You know I’m bad.
just last week, I murdered a rock,
Injured a stone, Hospitalized a brick.
I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.
I’m so fast, man,
I can run through a hurricane and don’t get wet.
When George Foreman meets me,
He’ll pay his debt.
I can drown the drink of water, and kill a dead tree.
Wait till you see Muhammad Ali.
Written by Muhammad Ali | Create an image from this poem
There live a great man named Joe
There live a great man named Joe
who was belittled by a loudmouth foe.
While his rival would taunt and tease
Joe silently bore the stings.
And then fought like gladiator in the ring.


CLAY COMES OUT TO MEET LISTON

Clay comes out to meet Liston
and Liston starts to retreat,
if Liston goes back an inch farther
he’ll end up in a ringside seat.
Clay swings with his left,
Clay swings with his right,
Look at young Cassius
carry the fight
Liston keeps backing, but there’s not enough room,
It’s a matter of time till Clay lowers the boom.
Now Clay lands with a right,
What a beautiful swing,
and the punch raises the Bear
clean out of the ring.
Liston is still rising and the ref wears a frown,
For he can’t start counting
till Sonny goes down.
Now Liston is disappearing from view,
The crowd is going frantic,
But radar stations have picked him up,
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 put up the money,
That they would see
a total eclipse of the Sonny.


The boy could fight too – sheer poetry in the ring, but he actually created a great deal of interesting, funny verse. Inspired by the barber-shop banter he heard in his youth, & driven through a supra-arrogant ‘I’m the greatest’ persona based upon a wrestler called Gorgeous George, the world became hooked on every word the young Cassius said – & he knew it, touching an entire planet thro’ his simple lyricism enabled by his global persona. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”


ALI V JOE FRAZIER

Ding! Ali comes out to meet Frazier
But Frazier starts to retreat
If Frazier goes back any further
He’ll wind up in a ringside seat

Ali swings to the left
Ali swings to the right
Look at the kid
Carry the fight

Frazier keeps backing
But there’s not enough room
It’s a matter of time
Then Ali lowers the boom

Now Ali lands to the right
What a beautiful swing!
And deposits Frazier
Clean out of the ring

Frazier’s still rising
But the referee wears a frown
For he can’t start counting
Till Frazier comes down

Now Frazier 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 that
When they came to the fight
That they would have witnessed
The launching of a coloured satellite!


After becoming involved with the controversial ‘Nation of Islam’ group in the 60s, Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, which will stick unto eternity. His legacy is being forgotten by the millennial generation, unfortunately, as is his poetry. But there is a clear case that for while he was at the peak of his powers, more people heard, were touched by, & recited back his poetry than other individual on the planet before or since. Maybe not a better poet than Shakespeare, but definitely, during his hey-days, bigger!


ON THE ATTICA PRISON RIOTS OF 1971

He said breedom – Better Now

Better far— from all I see—
To die fighting to be free
What more fitting end could be?

Better surely than in some bed
Where in broken health I’m led
Lingering until I’m dead

Better than with prayers and pleas
Or in the clutch of some disease
Wasting slowly by degrees

Better than a heart attack
or some dose of drug I lack
Let me die by being Black

Better far that I should go
Standing here against the foe
Is the sweeter death to know

Better than the bloody stain
On some highway where I’m lain
Torn by flying glass and pane

Better calling death to come
Than to die another dumb
Muted victim in the slum

Better than of this prison rot
If there’s any choice I’ve got
Kill me here on the spot

Better far my fight to wage
Now while my blood boils with rage
Lest it cool with ancient age

Better vowing for us to die
Than to Uncle Tom and try
Making peace just to live a lie

Better now that I say my sooth
I’m gonna die demanding truth
While I’m still akin to youth

Better now than later on
Now that fear of death is gone
Never mind another dawn.

This poem was recited on air while in Ireland & depicts a hostage protest for better conditions which led to 29 prisoners being shot by soldiers. After reading the poem, Muhammad Ali related the struggle of the Afro-Americans for freedom and justice to the struggle of the Irish against British imperialism


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THE LEGEND OF MUHAMMAD ALI

This is the legend of Muhammad Ali,
The greatest fighter that ever will be.
He talks a great deal and brags, indeed.
Of a powerful punch and blinding speed.
Ali fights great, he’s got speed and endurance.
If you sign to fight him, increase your insurance.
Ali’s got a left, Ali’s got a right;
If he hits you once, you’re asleep for the night
To make America the greatest is my goal
To make America the greatest is my goal,
So I beat the Russians, and I beat the Pole,
and for the USA won the medal of gold.
Italians said: “You’re Greater than the Cassius of old´´.
We like your name, we like your game,
So make Rome your home if you will.
I said I appreciate your kind hospitality,
But the USA is my country still,
‘Cause they’re waiting to welcome me in Louisville.


In the following interview, the controversial 1975 one with Playboy Magazine, Ali talks about his poetry & his newfound love of ‘sayings’

PLAYBOY:
Since a lot of people are wondering about this, level with us. Do you write all the poetry you pass off as your own?

ALI:
Sure I do. Hey, man, I’m so good I got offered a professorship at Oxford. I write late at night, after the phones stop ringin’ and it’s quiet and nobody’s around—all great writers do better at night. I take at least one nap during the day, and then I get up at two in the morning and do my thing. You know, I’m a worldly man who likes people and action and I always like cities, but now when I find myself in a city, I can’t wait to get back to my training camp. Neon signs, traffic, noise and people—all that can get you crazy. It’s funny, because I was supposed to be torturing myself by building a training camp out in the middle of no where in northern Pennsylvania, but this is good livin’—fresh air, well water, quiet and country views. I thought I wouldn’t like it at all but that at least I’d work a lot instead of being in the city, where maybe I wouldn’t train hard enough. Well, now I like it better than being in any city. This is a real good setting for writin’ poetry and I write all the time, even when I’m in training. In fact, I wrote one up here that’s better than any poem in the world.

PLAYBOY:
How do you know that?

ALI:
My poem explains truth, so what could be better? That’s the name of it, too,

Truth:
The face of Truth is open, the eyes
of Truth are bright
The lips of Truth are ever closed,
the head of Truth is upright
The breast of Truth stands forward,
the gaze of Truth is straight
Truth has neither fear nor doubt,
Truth has patience to wait.
The words of Truth are touching,
the voice of Truth is deep
The law of Truth is simple: All you
sow, you reap.
The soul of Truth is flaming, the
heart of Truth is warm
The mind of Truth is clear and
firm through rain and storm.
Facts are only its shadow, Truth
stands above all sin.
Great be the battle of life—Truth
in the end shall win.
The image of Truth is the Honorable
Elijah Muhammad, wisdom’s message is his rod
The sign of Truth is the crescent
and the soul of Truth is God.
Life of Truth is eternal
Immortal is its past
Power of Truth shall endure
Truth shall hold to the last.
It’s a masterpiece, if I say so myself.

But poems aren’t the only thing I’ve been writing. I’ve also been setting my mind to sayings. You want to hear some?

PLAYBOY:
Do we have a choice?

ALI:
You listen up and maybe I’ll make you as famous as I made Howard Cosell. “Wars on nations are fought to change maps, but wars on poverty are fought to map change.” Good, huh? “The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” These are words of wisdom, so pay attention, Mr. Playboy. “The man who has no imagination stands on the earth he has no wings, he cannot fly.” Catch this: “When we are right, no one remembers, but when we are wrong, no one forgets. Watergate!” I really like the next one: “Where is man’s wealth? His wealth is in his knowledge. If his wealth was in the bank and not in his knowledge, then he don’t possess it—because it’s in the bank!” You got all that?

PLAYBOY:
Got it, Muhammad.

ALI:
Well, there’s more. “The warden of a prison is in a worse condition than the prisoner himself. While the body of the prisoner is in captivity, the mind of the warden is in prison!” Words of wisdom by Muhammad Ali. This is about beauty: “It is those who have touched the inner beauty that appreciate beauty in all its forms.” I’m even going to explain that to you. Some people will look at a sister and say, “She sure is ugly.” Another man will see the same sister and say, “That’s the most beautiful woman I ever did see.” How do you like this one: “Love is a net where hearts are caught like fish”?

PLAYBOY:
Isn’t that a little corny?

ALI:
I knew you wasn’t smart as soon as I laid eyes on you. But I know you’re gonna like this one, which is called Riding on My Horse of Hope: “Holding in my hands the reins of courage, dressed in the armor of patience, the helmet of endurance on my head, I started on my journey to the land of love.” Whew! Muhammad Ali sure goes deeper than boxing.


Ali ‘the poet’ must also go down on record as the author of the shortest poem in the language. According to  Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, the shortest poem in the English language was Lines on the Antiquity of Microbes by Strickland Gillilan, which went, ‘Adam / Had’em.’ Ali beat this hands down with his sexy & supercilious, ‘Me / We.’ Yes, Muhammad Ali, you truly were the greatest.


 

1-11-2019

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