In 1972, Muhammad Ali did an amazing television interview in Ireland (for RTE One), a wide-ranging conversation that covered boxing, politics, justice, religion, poetry, life, and everything else you might think he’d talk about. He spoke with his characteristic directness, sending home acute observations with abundant intelligence and razor-edged humor. It was a bit like listening to the ghost of Oscar Wilde trash-talk his opponents, only smarter and more on-point, and with a powerful underlying social conscience. For people who like their language quippy and want things to add to a collection of one-liners, this interview is a gold mine. For people who want to see a skilled rhetorician at work, this interview is a master class in the artful use of words and the deployment of irony. He toyed with the interviewer and the audience like he toyed with some of his boxing opponents, hitting just as hard with words as he did with his fists. For people who want to learn something about the game from a practical expert in the science and art of boxing, it’s a good lesson. And, most importantly, for people who want want an understanding of the racial and political context in which Muhammad Ali operated and want to see an activist at work who understands very well that he is addressing a system and a systematic problem, it’s a revelation. If you’ve never watched it before or don’t remember it, go to the link and watch the whole thing now. It’s 47 minutes of brilliance.
I was reminded of the interview this morning when a former student shared a clip from it on Facebook, and also reminded that Muhammad Ali could give a great lesson in poetry:
It is tempting (for an academic, anyway) to try to pick apart a poem, any poem — to criticize an infelicitous rhyme, to question an image or a rhythmic structure, that sort of thing. It seems to me, though, as I listen to Muhammad Ali here, that such criticisms belong to a very dry sort of appreciation of the art that misses what’s most powerful about it. What makes this poem wonderful, speaking truth to power as it does, lies not in its structural soundness or rhyme scheme, but in the way in which it is spoken, and the way in which that speech expresses the truth of its speaker (who is also its author, the chooser of its words). It is a genuinely beautiful recitation, and it strikes me that poetry like this — lived, spoken — is significantly different from the poetry of the written word (which is a beauty of another kind). These words on a page would be empty by comparison, even though their given meaning, their structural placement, and their apparent rhythm might not be much changed. This is poetry as practice rather than as artifact or object. This is speech at play, but simultaneously serious (like all of the sharpest play can be) — and of this kind of speech, Muhammad Ali shows himself here to be a master.
This is how you use poetry to make a point.