Once during a terrible period in my life I watched A Muhammad Ali fight on television and felt the will to live return. Here is terrific article on his linguistic prowess. Thanks Michael G. Smith for sending it to me!
Muhammad Ali, the Political Poet
By HENRY LOUIS GATES Jr.JUNE 9, 2016
A friend asked me the other day to choose my favorite Muhammad Ali fight. “The Rumble in the Jungle,” I responded. I was thinking of all the rhymes that accompanied it, from “You think the world was shocked when Nixon resigned? Wait till I whip George Foreman’s behind,” to the very phrase “rope-a-dope”, as he named the strategy he used to defeat a superior opponent in the heat of Kinshasa. It was an athletic event but it was also a linguistic one.
Almost from the beginning of his career, when he was still called Cassius Clay, his rhymed couplets, like his punches, were brutal and blunt. And his poems, like his opponents, suffered a beating. The press’s earliest nicknames for him, such as “Cash the Brash” and “the Louisville Lip,” derived from his deriding of opponents with poetic insults. When in the history of boxing have critics been so irked by a fighter’s use of language? A. J. Liebling called him “Mr. Swellhead Bigmouth Poet,” while John Ahern, writing in The Boston Globe in 1964, mocked his “vaudeville” verse as “homespun doggerel.” Time magazine, in a particularly nasty triple dig in 1967 over Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War, his embrace of the Nation of Islam and his name change, called him “Gaseous Cassius.”
But the same verse can strike one critic as doggerel and another as art, and not everyone missed the power — and the point — of Ali’s poetics. Even Ahern admitted that “the guy is a master at rhyming,” and The New Yorker editor and Ali biographer David Remnick would eulogize him as “a master of rhyming prediction and derision.” Perhaps Maya Angelou, whose own poetry is sometimes labeled doggerel, said it best: “It wasn’t only what he said and it wasn’t only how he said it; it was both of those things, and maybe there was a third thing in it, the spirit of Muhammad Ali, saying his poesies — ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.’ I mean, as a poet, I like that! If he hadn’t put his name on it, I might have chosen to use that!”
Edmund Wilson once said that “we have produced some of our truest poetry in the folk songs that are inseparable from their tunes.” Likewise, the power of Ali’s poetry, often bland on the page, is inseparable from the compelling resonance of his voice.
A century ago, the great literary historian George Saintsbury, in his monumental “A History of English Prosody,” defined doggerel “in the worst sense” as “merely bad verse — verse which attempts a certain form or norm, and fails.” But Saintsbury maintains that there is another sort of doggerel that “ought never to die.”
“This doggerel,” he wrote, “is excused by the felicitous result. The poet is not trying to do what he cannot do; he is trying to do something exceptional, outrageous, shocking — and does it to admiration.”
If ever there is to be a collection of Ali’s verse, Saintsbury’s observation is the perfect blurb for the dust jacket.