23 February, 2006

Short poem: Muhammad Ali

mi: — wi:

— Muhammad Ali (or Gary Belkin?)
For Empson and his New Criticism cronies, compact ambiguity was the essence of poetry; this disyllabic ditty delivered off the cuff by the century's greatest boxer must rank as one of the most compact ambiguities since Shakespeare. Empson's most famous book catalogues seven types of ambiguity, his second type being the resolution of distinct meanings in a single word; we see exactly this resolution in the second syllable of Ali's utterance. I have presented it in IPA form above, so as to avoid semantic tendentiousness. Possible written interpretations of the oral form include:

A. Me? We.

B. Me? Oui!

(Contributors to this discussion suggest 'whee!', and 'wee' in the sense of little—the latter wrongly considered Irish—but I don't find these solutions very satisfactory.) The second reading, or rather writing, fundamentally opposes, and thus complements, the first. We construe them thus:

A. Me? No, rather we.

B. Me? You bet!

We imagine the original question to be something like, "Is it you that's important?" B replies, yes it's me, the individual, in fact the athletic übermensch, that matters. If 'oui' is to be understood here, the first syllable even suggests 'mais', the two words thus acquiring the sense of "But of course!" The French, further, has the connotation of élitism, distancing Ali from his English-speaking audience. Charles Taylor assumes this reading in his review of the 1999 documentary When We Were Kings:
The movie ends with Plimpton relating a story about Ali delivering a commencement address at Harvard. Responding to the cry, "Give us a poem!" Ali delivers two words: "Me. Oui!"
A, on the other hand, grounds the importance of the individual in the group; the lone hero derives his significance and power from his inclusion in the social fabric. The question then becomes, which social fabric: American society as a whole? The black community? Islam? Initially an underdog in the former, Ali came to be lionised by all. The hero, like the king, represents his society by being its greatest achievement. In one recent piece, Ali spoke of his duty as a champion to set an example to his fellow man; he also propounded something less like Islam and more like Buddhism, albeit expressed rather self-importantly—
As I look back on it today, I would say that what I gained was the ability to see the world in something like the way God must see it. To understand that there are no distinctions of any real importance in the affairs of men, that there is only one time and one place and one person and one truth. And that we are all contained in that time and place and person, and that the truth contains us all.
This article he called 'Me... We' (Zelig infers from this article that 'we' is the correct reading; but after Wimsatt/Beardsley et al., we need no longer prize the author's interpretation above others). Ali implies that the glory of 'me' belongs really to 'we', that there is no clear distinction between these two bodies: that there is only "one person and one truth". Whatever we think of the validity of this pluralistic outlook, we can recognize in it some connection to the playful Rastafarian use of "I". I cite Mike Pawka's dictionary:
I: replaces "me", "you", "my"; replaces the first syllable of selected words.

I and I: I, me, you and me, we. Rastafari speech eliminates you, me we, they, etc., as divisive and replaces same with communal I and I. I and I embraces the congregation in unity with the Most I (High) in an endless circle of inity (unity).
Just as the Rastafarian "I" collapses you / me distinctions, so Ali's "wi:" collapses the traditional contrast between the individual and the community, reminding us that each derives its value and power from the other, or from their interrelation.

No comments: