The World’s Shortest Poem by Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay)
Posted On 01/10/2020
There is a little-known poem by Muhammad Ali that became a contender for the world’s shortest poem in history.
Previously, the generally accepted holder of this title was poet Strickland Gillilan with his poem Fleas, that was until, Ali the greatest boxer of all time came along with his two word rhyme.
Born on 17 January 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, as Cassius Marcellus Jr, Ali got his nickname of The Greatest for being an American professional boxer and activist.
He is regarded as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. He held multiple Ring titles, he was the undisputed champion from 1974 – 1978, and named Sports Person of the Century by the BBC, to name but a few of his accolades.
Then, on the 4th of June in 1975 at the commencement speech to 2,000 Harvard University students, Ali, threw his hat in the ring for another new title: The World’s Shortest Poem.
At the end of his speech, there was a great roar, and a student shouted out, ‘Give us a poem!’ After the room settled down, Ali hit back with a two word rhyme:
It was 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.
I was desperate for it to be, Me We, because it is just so perfect and poetic and packs the most meaning into two words ever put together. This resulted in me having to cope with a couple of big battles going on in my own brain – confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance.
I think it is important to research things that you want to be true. As it teaches us important lessons about hubris and humility. Hence the blog.
So Is It Me We? Or Me Whee?
Louis Doré, reporting on Ali’s death in 2016 in The Independent, puts both versions down as possibilities.
Doré writes, ‘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’.
Plimpton also said he wrote to Bartlett’s Quotations and told them Ali’s poem was shorter than Strickland Gillilan’s Fleas. He told them, ‘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?
What Did The Muhammad Ali Center, Louisville, Kentucky Say?
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.
But you know as of yesterday the Muhammad Ali Center can offer better and more concise resources.
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 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 Jeffrey Solomon brought out a book called ‘I’ of 75 shortest poems including the three letter poem ‘3.14’ — I pi.
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 ring.
In Conclusion: Muhammad Ali’s Poem Me Whee Beats Strickland Gillilan’s Fleas
There are a lot of excellent contenders for the world’s shortest poem in history.
I think we can safely say Muhammad Ali’s poem is shorter that Strickland Gillilan’s Fleas.
Although, it is not the shortest poem in the world.
How about we all just all agree Muhammad Ali was the greatest. The greatest at boxing, the champ of social justice and the master of making up nearly the world’s shortest poem.
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? Post your comment below…
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I am a writer from Lancashire.
I spend a lot of my time raising my daughter and hanging out with my family.
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