Permission given, with the caveat that I mention that the story about Ali's speech to the graduating class was originally told by the sportswriter George Plimpton. He tells it in the film When We Were Kings, and I've put the youtube link (if you want to see Plimpton tell it) at the very bottom of this post.
The Shortest Poem in the English Language
by Collin Ganio
Good evening, everyone. Those of you who know me know that I love words. I really do. I honestly think they’re the most powerful tool humanity has ever created. Words have started wars, words have ended wars, and—when we’ve gotten really lucky—words have averted wars altogether. I love it when people use words well. And whenever I hear someone using words poorly, it makes me throw up in my mouth just a little. If you know me, you also know I love telling you stories, so here’s one last one for you.
Muhammad Ali—there was an amazing wordsmith. You know, he struggled with dyslexia, but rhymed with ease. He composed extemporaneous poetry about his upcoming fights all the time. One of my favorites: “I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale. I’ve handcuffed lightning an’ thrown thunder in jail. Yesterday I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean I make medicine sick.” There are plenty of others. Just go google ‘em and you can find ‘em easily.
|Muhammad Ali bust portrait by Ira Rosenberg. Available from the Library of Congress.|
His most thought-provoking poem (for me, at least) is also the shortest poem in the English language. Harvard had invited him to come speak to their graduating class. He gave a great speech about how he had not had access to their education, and how the new graduates should take the opportunity that they had been given to go out and change the world. At the end of his speech, as the applause died down, someone yelled “Give us a poem!”
He looked out at the class of graduating seniors, people very different from him in so many ways. He gestured to himself and said “Me.” Then he opened his arms to include all the students and said “WE.” The crowd went wild.
What a poem! Two simple pronouns, without even a verb. Four letters in all. The first letters of each word are just reflections of one another. Is the second word the opposite of the first word, or just a reflection of it? The meaning of this poem is so much greater than the poem itself, when you think about it.
We’re all part of Generation ME—anyone born in the 1970’s, 80’s, or 90’s is a part of this generation—and we’ve been taught largely that the self is the most important thing out there. “What’s in this for ME? How does this benefit ME? What am I going to get out of this? How is this going to help ME succeed?” And the internet, which theoretically broadens our social horizons to include a global community, ironically tends to focus on the self—Myspace, Facebook, and Twitter are all, ultimately, in a way, tools for the narcissistic.
With two little words used so simply, Ali suggested that this world might be a happier place if we spent less time thinking about me and more time thinking about we. I issue the same challenge to you—think less about Myspace and more about Ourspace. Use your agile minds and big hearts—ask the deep questions—in order to make this world better not just for yourselves, but for everyone around you. I mean, think about it—if everyone worked to better a community for their fellow citizens, then we might not spend a lot of time working to make our own lives better, but we might not need to, since everyone around us would be doing that for us.
And wouldn’t that be a hell of a thing? Thank you. Good night.
Thank you, Mr. Ganio!