Around 1992 the African Nobel Prize winning poet, Wole Soyinka, spoke at Southern Illinois University campus and I got to attend my first poetry reading as a budding poet and undergrad. After hearing of the death of Muhammad Ali the memory of that reading and the refrain "ohh Ali, Ali" from his poem "Muhammad Ali at the Ringside, 1985" has been ringing in my ears in Soyinka's remarkable voice. I want to introduce it to you. I believe this is only a part of the poem (I can't find the text online), but it's wonderful.
Audio Download: Muhammad Ali at the Ringside
UPDATE: Nick Roark posted the text in the comments so I added them here. Thanks Nick!
The arena is darkened. A feast of blood
Will follow duly; the spotlights have been borrowed
For a while. These ringside prances
Merely serve to whet the appetite. Gladiators,
Clad tonight in formal mufti, customised,
Milk recognition, savour the night-off, show-off
Rites. Ill-fitted in this voyeur company,
The desperate arm-wrap of the tiring heart
Gives place to social hugs, the slow-count
One to ten to a snappy "Give-me-five!"
Toothpaste grins replace the death-mask
Rubber gumshield grimaces. Promiscuous
Peck-a-cheek supplants the Maestro's peek-a-boo.
The roped arena waits; an umpire tests the floor,
Tests whiplash boundaries of the rope.
The gallants' exhibition rounds possess
These foreplay moments. Gloves in silk-white sheen
Rout lint and leather. Pack Rabane rules the air.
A tight-arsed soubrette checks her placard smile
To sign the rounds for blood and gore.
Eased from the navel of Bitch-Mother Fame
A microphone, neck-ruffed silver-filigree,
As one who would usurp the victor's garland-- stabs the air
for instant prophesies. In cosy insulation, bathed
In tele-glow, the distant homes have built
Their own vicarious rings-- the forecast claimed
Four million viewers on the cable deal alone;
Much "bread" was loaded on the scales
At weighing hour-- till scores are settled. One
Will leave the fickle womb tonight
Smeared in combat fluids, a broken foetus.
The other, toned in fire, a dogged phoenix
Oblivious of the slow countdown of inner hurts
Will thrust his leaden fists in air
Night prince of the world of dreams.
One sits still. His silence is a dying count.
At last the lens acknowledges the tested
Hulk that dominates, even in repose
The giddy rounds of furs and diamond pins.
A brief salute-- the camera is kind,
Discreetly pans, and masks the double-talk
Of medicine-men-- "Has the syndrome
But not the consequence." Promoters, handlers
It's time to throw in the towel-- Parkinson's
Polysyllables have failed to tease a rhyme
From the once nimble Louisville lips.
The camera flees, distressed. But not before
The fire of battle flashes in those eyes
Re-kindled by the moment's urge to centre-stage.
He rules the night-space even now, bestrides
The treacherous domain with thighs of bronze,
A dancing mural of delights. Oh Ali! Ale-e-e...
What music hurts the massive head tonight, Ali!
The drums, the tin-cans, the guitars and mbira of Zaire?
Aa-lee! Aa-lee! Aa-lee Bomaye! Ali Bomaye!
The Rumble in the Jungle? Beauty and the Beast?
Roll-call of Bum-a-Month. The rope-a-dope?
The Thrilla in Manila?-- Ah-lee! Ah-lee!
"The closest thing to death" you said. Was that
The greatest, saddest prophesy of all? Oh, Ali!
Black Tarantula whose antics hypnotise the foe!
Butterfly side-slipping death from rocket probes
Bee whose sting, unsheathed, picks the teeth
Of the raging hippopotamus, then fans
The jaws' convergence with its flighty wings.
Needle that threads the snappy fangs
Of crocodiles, knots the tusks of elephants
On rampage. Cricket that claps and chirrups
Round the flailing horn of the rhinoceros,
Then shuffles, does a bugle, tap-dances on its tip.
Esu with faces turned to all four compass points,
Astride a weather-vane; they sought to trap him,
Slapped the wine each time. He brings a message--
All know the messenger, the neighborhood is roused--
Yet no one sees his face, he waits for no reply,
Only that combination three-four calling-card,
The wasp-tail legend: I've been there and gone.
Mortar that goads the pestle: Do you call that
Pounding? The yam is not yet smooth--
Pound, dope, pound! When I have eaten the yam,
I'll chew the fibre that once called itself
A pestle! Warrior who said, I will not fight,
Yet proved a prophet's call-to-arms against a war.
Cassius Marcellus, Warrior, Muhammad Prophet,
Flesh is clay, all, all too brittle mould.
The bout is over. Frayed and split and autographed,
The gloves are hung up in the Hall of Fame--
Still loaded, even from that first blaze of gold
And glory. Awed multitudes will gaze,
New questers feast on these mementoes
And from their shell-shocked remnants
Re-invoke the spell. But the sorcerer is gone,
The lion withdrawn to a lair of time and space
Inaccessible as the sacred lining of a crown
When kings were kings, and lords of rhyme and pace.
The enchantments is over, but the spell remains.
-Wole Soyinka, "Muhammad Ali at the Ringside, 1985" in The Muhammad Ali Read, Ed. Gerald Early (New York: Harper, 1998), 227-229.
Our Woodstock poetry group, Atrocious Poets, was brought in to interact with our local and amazing art show, 4th Fridays. Artists come from far away to show their stuff.
We read some poetry inside, some outside. Some poems were our own and some from famous poets. Our fearless leader, Sophie, was sitting at an old Royal typewriter and writing "Atrocious Poetry While You Wait." The response blew us away. She wrote dozens of poems. My specialty was reading outside at an entrance point where everyone who entered funnelled in. I wrote one poem in particular I was excited to use and it really only served the purpose of this event. Here it is for you, and it should be read aloud in the style of a carnival barker.
For an event like this I wanted the poem to be quick to grab attention but not for long. It's an introduction to the rest of the show.
Ladies and gentlemen
boys and girls,
welcome to the greatest show
Come one, come all
come short, come tall
step right up and pay the price
to see these wonders captured
by untamed imaginations,
by hearts enraptured.
Enter the scenes
these artists have made,
leave the week’s work
and worries behind
and find in what
you see displayed
beauty and truth
for heart and mind.
Now go, enjoy,
drink deep this night
we hope in art
you may see light.
The night was a huge success and it was really just us dipping our toes in the water in preparation for a few other things we want to do the next show we participate in. Can't wait!
I heard Dana Gioia read this poem at a lecture and fell in love with it. I have a particular fascination with issues of darkness and light when it comes to writing, and the darkness particularly associated with the night.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
Especially for my Christian friends, the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins is a great place to go for devotional poetry. And it serves as a nice bridge toward enjoying poetry for Christians who only know the poetry of hymns. Also listen.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Today is the beginning of April, National Poetry Month. As a lover of poetry and a poet, I've launched a poetry project with Joe Holland called Dry Bones Poetry. It's a free PDF with original poetry by the two of us and some other friends. Please enjoy, share with others, and let us know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I just want to give this a hug. Follow the poem below.
I ATE THE COSMOS FOR BREAKFAST
—After Thich Nhat Han
It looked like a pancake,
but it was creation flattened out—
the fist of God on a head of wheat,
milk, the unborn child of an unsuspecting
chicken — all beaten to batter and drizzled into a pan.
I brewed my tea and closed my eyes
while I ate the sun, the air, the rain,
photosynthesis on a plate.
I ate the time it took that chicken
to bear and lay her egg
and the energy it takes a cow to lactate a cup of milk.
I thought of the farmers, the truck drivers,
the grocers, the people who made the bag that stored the wheat,
and my labor over the stove seemed short,
and the pancake tasted good,
and I was thankful.
I write words, I speak--
My inflamed heart bleeding truths
to dare, spur, and seek.
Edgar Allan Poe was born this day, January 19, 1809. Much of his poetry expresses longings unfulfilled, sadness, and darkness. One writer has said, "Poe never lost contact with the terrible pathos of his time....he explored the heart of darkness." His poetry is worthy of our consideration on his birthday, so here is "A Dream Within a Dream," where we feel with Poe our inability to keep hold of the golden sands of time against the pitiless waves.
A Dream Within a Dream
Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow —
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
It is said that Martin Luther King's "Dream" speech was inspired, at least in part, by reading Langston Hughes' poem "Dream Deferred." Here is Hughes' "Harlem" from his montage of "Dream Deferred" (published 1951, found in his Collected Poems) and then MLK's full speech (1963). As you can see by the text, Hughes is not only speaking of his day, but also ours. And the pairing together the fears of a dream deferred to the proclamation of a dream hoped and longed for is a powerful thing.
by Langston Hughes
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
I was up late last night writing, reading, thinking. Right before bed I wrote this poem (haiku) as I was thinking about life, my own life, the life of dads my age. Then I didn't sleep a wink all night.
Sips of midnight tea
interrupt encroaching fears.
Midlife night terrors.
Chicago has been on my mind and the mind of America with injustice and pain and protests. And so for me Carl Sandburg's poetry has been on my mind and his his famous poem "Chicago." A reminder of the stormy, husky, brawling, city. The city of the big shoulders.
Sandburg said of himself, "I am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass." He wrote poetry that everyone could read and understand, he wrote poetry of understanding the common man, and yet scholars read and respected Sandburg. His collection, Chicago Poems, is still widely read today and available cheap. I read again through the first dozen or so poems last night I was moved near tears, both for what he said and the fact that he said such beautiful things so simply. We should aspire to do the same.
CHICAGO by Carl Sandburg
HOG Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning
as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has
never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse.
and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of
Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog
Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with
Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.
Billy Collins is the gateway drug to a life of enjoying poetry. I tell folks to start with him if you don't know where to start. Here his animated poem, "Forgetfulness."
Christian Wiman is a poet I've only started to check out the last couple of years. I first heard of him because he was the editor of Poetry (until 2013), the oldest American magazine of poetry. Wiman has been diagnosed with an incurable cancer of the blood and his poetry reflects his suffering, a God who knows suffering, and messy faith. You should check out his bio, read the Christianity Today interview from 2012, and see the PBS Religion & Ethics Weekly discussion (video embedded below) from last October.
Wiiman has numerous books of poetry as well as a recent book of essays, My Bright Abyss (Kindle). This poem, "Every Riven Thing," is from his book of poetry, Every Riven Thing. You can also listen to Wiman read it.
God goes, belonging to every riven thing he's made
sing his being simply by being
the thing it is:
stone and tree and sky,
man who sees and sings and wonders why
God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing he's made,
means a storm of peace.
Think of the atoms inside the stone.
Think of the man who sits alone
trying to will himself into a stillness where
God goes belonging. To every riven thing he's made
there is given one shade
shaped exactly to the thing itself:
under the tree a darker tree;
under the man the only man to see
God goes belonging to every riven thing. He's made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,
God goes belonging to every riven thing he's made.
It's April 2014 and that means another National Poetry Month (NPM) is upon us. Let's travel together on the journey of slowing down to the land of verse and occasional rhyme and find there distilled truths and feelings. Or something like that.
Click on the graphic below to learn more about NPM at Poets.org and learn 30 ways to celebrate. Read my article "3 Reasons to Read Poetry." But most of all, read a poem today. After enjoying a Cubs loss on Opening Day, I give you "A Ballad of Baseball Burdens" by Franklin Pierce Adams...
The burden of hard hitting. Slug away
Like Honus Wagner or like Tyrus Cobb.
Else fandom shouteth: "Who said you could play?
Back to the jasper league, you minor slob!"
Swat, hit, connect, line out, get on the job.
Else you shall feel the brunt of fandom's ire
Biff, bang it, clout it, hit it on the knob --
This is the end of every fan's desire.
The burden of good pitching. Curved or straight.
Or in or out, or haply up or down,
To puzzle him that standeth by the plate,
To lessen, so to speak, his bat-renoun:
Like Christy Mathewson or Miner Brown,
So pitch that every man can but admire
And offer you the freedom of the town --
This is the end of every fan's desire.
The burden of loud cheering. O the sounds!
The tumult and the shouting from the throats
Of forty thousand at the Polo Grounds
Sitting, ay, standing sans their hats and coats.
A mighty cheer that possibly denotes
That Cub or Pirate fat is in the fire;
Or, as H. James would say, We've got their goats --
This is the end of every fan's desire.
The burden of a pennant. O the hope,
The tenuous hope, the hope that's half a fear,
The lengthy season and the boundless dope,
And the bromidic; "Wait until next year."
O dread disgrace of trailing in the rear,
O Piece of Bunting, flying high and higher
That next October it shall flutter here:
This is the end of every fan's desire.
Ah, Fans, let not the Quarry but the Chase
Be that to which most fondly we aspire!
For us not Stake, but Game; not Goal, but Race --
THIS is the end of every fan's desire.
I've written an article at Gospel Centered Discipleship on the importance of reading poetry. I've added reading and writing poetry as a discipline for the new year, not just something to do occasionally. The truth is, you already consider poetry as an important part of your life (Psalms, hymns,etc). I think reading the poetry of the culture is important too. I talk about three great benefits to the regular reading of poetry...
- The Importance and Power of Words
- Slowing Down
- Seeing and Feeling
Go and read my whole article, "3 Reasons to Read Poetry" over at GCD. Make poetry a part of your year. It offers many blessings.
It's here again! Always look forward to National Poetry Month (NPM). It's a good yearly reminder to consider our words and make the most of them. May our words be pregnant with meaning! It's a good reminder to see the world thorugh a poet's eyes. In a world of abbreviations, texting, and Twitter we would do good to say more with less. And it would be good in the hustle of life to slow down and digest something beautiful in slow meditation, seeing every word in its place and with its purpose.
Who are some poets you like? It's ok if you don't know the book sort. What songwriters do you like?