As Black History Month begins today on National Poetry Day, it brings to mind how a little-known poem by Muhammad Ali became a contender for the world’s shortest poem.
Previously, the generally accepted holder of this title was poet Strickland Gillilan, that was until, Ali the greatest boxer of all time came along.
On the 4th of June in 1975 Ali was invited to do the commencement speech to 2,000 Harvard University students.
At the end there was a great roar then a student shouted out, ‘Give us a poem!’ and after the room had quietened down, Ali hit back with a two word rhyme — either ‘Me / We’ or ‘Me? / Whee!!’
But which one was it that he actually said? This literary punch-up is less Rumble in the Jungle, more Enunciation in the Graduation.
Reporting on Ali’s death in 2016 in The Independent, Louis Doré puts both versions down as possibilities. He claims ‘Me / We’ expresses a sense of community and an appreciation of togetherness. While ‘Me? / Whee!’ expresses a freewheeling sense of ego.
Now, if you listen closely to legendary sports journalist George Plimpton in the documentary clip below of When We Were Kings (1996) who was at the Harvard event, you can hear him clearly enunciate ‘whee’ with an ‘h’. He also said he wrote Bartlett’s Quotations and told them Ali’s poem was shorter than Gillilan’s and ‘look here that’s shorter than “Adam had ’em” you want to put it in?’
Richard J. Doherty’s review of Ali’s speech published in the The Harvard Crimson five days after the event says in last paragraph:
“There was also a poetry recital of sorts including the “shortest poem ever written on what it’s like to be as great as Ali.” “Me? Whee!!”
How did Doherty know which ‘we / whee’ it was? The words are homophones. Did he speak to Ali afterwards to clarify?
The wonderful Bess Goldy, Collections Associate at the Muhammad Ali Center in Ali’s hometown of Louisville said the question is as interesting as it is difficult to answer.
She said, ‘As Muhammad spoke the poem in its first iteration, I do not know that we can assume which word he meant, as frustrating as that seems. I read your blog post and noted that you discuss the possibilities with references to some great resources. I do not know that we can offer you better or more concise resources. I will say that the Muhammad Ali Center considers the poem to be “Me! Whee!”’
But you know as of yesterday the Muhammad Ali Center can offer better and more concise resources. After weeks on the trail of this poem puzzle, the Jeanie B. Kahnke, Senior Director of Public Relations and External Affairs, sent me an email with the message: ‘I did find Muhammad delivering the poem, and to me, it is quite obvious that Muhammad meant “Wheeeeeee!” It’s at about 24:14. See what you think!’
What do I think? I think Jeanie is bloody brilliant! Actual film footage of Ali saying the poem. There is clearly no doubt what Ali meant. It is there for all to see in director Arny Stone’s film.
OK! With the semantics sorted, shall we now plough on and courageously ask ourselves — is it actually even the world’s shortest poem?
Is it actually even the world’s shortest poem?
As we have already heard, up until 1975, the most commonly cited poem competing for the title is Strickland Gillilan’s Lines on the Antiquity of Microbes or Fleas as it is also known.
It reads: Adam / Had ‘em. Two words. Nine letters. Ali’s at two words and six letters is obviously shorter. However, there is the four letter two word offering of Tears by William C. Wilkinson, which reads, ‘I, Cry’.
And according The Guinness Book of Records they claim Aram Saroyan’s poem M written in the mid 1960s is the world’s shortest poem.
This poem consists of a four-legged version of the letter ‘m’ thus making it one and a half letters long.
And the shortness doesn’t stop getting shorter there either. There is a poem by Canadian avant-garde artist J. W. Curry just of the letter ‘i’ where the dot of the i is made out of his thumbprint.
So I suppose if you are taking an accurate view of things, the latter one, the one letter long one is the winner. Unless of course I decided to write a poem compromised of half of the letter ‘x’?
Or even the bridge of the ‘H’?
And back in the room.
How about we all just all agree Muhammad Ali was the greatest at boxing, the champ of social justice and the master of making up nearly the world’s shortest poem. And for these achievements alone, he deserves to rank as one of the most celebrated people in history.
See the full listings for Black History Month celebrating black people 365 days a year.
Watch the award-winning documentary When We Were Kings (1996) about the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle Heavy Weight Champion of the World fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.
Visit the Muhammad Ali Center online for everything you ever need to know about Ali and go in person the next time you are in Louisville, Kentucky, USA.
Which we / whee did you think it was? Please post your comment below!
I live in the North of England and spend a lot of time trying to get a toddler dressed in the morning, then the afternoon, then I give up and let her stay in her pyjamas because it's nearly bedtime again. I also like to help people who are stuck for words. That's it really. Those two things. It's a nice life.
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