Dear Juan Felipe Herrera,
My name is Charley and I'm a freshman in high school. My English 1 class is participating in Dear Poet. One of the first poems we listened to was "You Can't Put Muhammad Ali in a Poem." I am a basketball player and I very much enjoy sports and sport concepts. Hearing a poem about a man who was dubbed "the greatest of all time" was interesting and very entertaining.
The first thing that drew me into your poem was your voice. The carefully planned super rhythmic, sharp pauses between lines made the words in the poem really jump out at me. I love the way you separated lines out when I saw the poem printed, and when I read it in my head I felt like I was thrown into the middle of a high stakes boxing battle. The quote "it could be peace it could be unity" quietly promotes peace and unity through your words. It also seems to have the approval of Ali. I love your last line "("it's gonna sting like a bee)" because I know it references Ali's uncanny style of boxing described as "float like a butterfly sting like a bee." I was wondering if Ali was one of your favorite athletes? Were you involved in boxing? How did you decide the line structure you chose? What is the life of a poet like? Ali was a controversial athlete. Did that increase your want to write about him?
Thank you for such a well thought-out letter and for your clear and natural way of speaking about this poem and a full-bodied, global figure, Muhammad Ali—an athlete like you! Athletes can be world speakers, yes it it is true. And Ali became, as you know, a world voice. Isn’t that so marvelous?
And this is one of the reasons why I truly loved your letter—you play basketball and enjoy poetry and delve into it with gusto. It is the dream of a poet to cross over into the world audience and in particular into the incredible audiences that fill sports arenas! Perhaps it is because we long to step out of our tiny rooms and local circles and shake hands with everyone—sometimes sports seems distant to us. With your letter my own dream of writing for basketball players and all athletes has moved into reality. Thank you! Maybe rhythm, as you mention, is one way of making this connection possible.
As you say in your letter, “super rhythmic, sharp pauses between lines.” Sounds like basketball, now that I think about it. You have an excellent sense about how to go about reading a poem and talking about it. As I wrote the poem, it literally leaped out of the page and the lines dashed, danced and threw themselves onto the white canvas sheet of paper under the pen. As a matter of fact, dashing, dancing and throwing lines, words and phrases are my favorite ways of writing—fast, fast, fast and turning at unpredictable moments to surprise my readers, myself too. Like Ali shocked me with his bravado.
As a person of color, bravado is hard to attain and easy to express. When I was in middle school I had a hard time speaking up (I had been punished in early grades for speaking up in Spanish). So much so that I forced myself to join choir in 8th grade so I could be called on to sing in front of everyone. Imagine? Sometimes some of my friends would, in a flash, respond to bullying with fists and hot tears flying off of their faces. When Ali appeared on the scene, he showed us how to wear our color and how to speak our mind—and our heart. Controversy, sometimes is merely speaking up in a room of silence. Ali was my sports hero.
Unfortunately or fortunately in 6th grade, when I tried boxing at the Mission District Boys Club in San Francisco, I made it as far as one round, and boom! I was on my back. Giant puffy candy-apple red gloves that wouldn't hurt a mosquito sent me flying. Funny. Poetry was my true sport, I guess.
You mention the “structure” of my poem. I commend you. Most of us speak of “content,” what the poem is about, the story of the poem, for example. How the poem is built, constructed—length of lines, order of words, arrangement of stanzas, use of pauses, that’s another matter. It is one of my favorite things about writing the poem. Pure delight! W.S. Merwin, one of our great American poets, says that punctuation is like “stapling” a poem. Makes sense to me. Punctuation too, however, is also an art. All this—is has to do with the life of a poet.
A poet—private, public, taken over by the desire to speak, to write, to think, to relate, to discover, to experiment, to love all beings, be to global and cosmic and to bounce on the canvas, run, turn, jump to the hoop, that magical moment when everyone is holding their breath, then explode—with joy, if, that is, the poem swooshes back down to earth, alive.
Thank you, Charley, may you have an amazing, rhythmic day,
Juan Felipe Herrera
Poet Laureate of the United States, 2015-2017