Remembering when Muhammad Ali invented the shortest poem in the English language

Remembering when Muhammad Ali invented the shortest poem in the English language

Boxing's greatest icon, Muhammad Ali, has died at the age of 74.

Ali was not only a three-time heavyweight champion of the world, he was evasive and commanding in and out the ring, a countercultural icon for his opposition to Vietnam, and a man who did everything on his own terms.

He also wrote what may be the shortest poem in the English language.

The 1996 academy-award winning documentary When We Were Kings details the build-up to the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali.

In one interview sports journalist George Plimpton tells the story of Ali talking to 2,000 Harvard seniors at a commencement ceremony in 1975.

He gave this wonderful speech about how he hadn't had the opportunity, but they had, and they should use that language, that learning that they had to go out and change the world and make it a better place.

And it was moving and it was funny at the same time and there was a great roar of appreciation at the end of it.

And then someone at the end of it shouted out 'Give us a poem!', and everybody quieted down.

As Plimpton relates, it was considered at the time, at least by Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, the shortest poem in the English language was Lines on the Antiquity of Microbes by Strickland Gillilan.

It reads:



Muhammad Ali's poem was:



Or, as it is sometimes asserted, the poem was:



Either way, it's only two words.

One version expresses a sense of community, and of appreciation for support and togetherness.

The other expresses a freewheeling sense of ego, of enjoyment for one's achievement and abilities and of thanks for the opportunity of existence.

It's perhaps fitting that these seemingly incongruous interpretations are relatable to the unconfinable, unique character of Muhammad Ali.

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