Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali

Love sports? Love biography? Love poetry? If any one of these is true, then have I got the book for you.

When I was a kid, boxing was in one of its golden ages. Reigning champs were Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. I watched Ali fight on TV, and talk smack on TV, and make political points on TV. And he wasn't just on TV - he was talked about on the radio, too. Back then all the good music was on AM radio, and before channels that are now all-news, all-talk all the time took over the AM airwaves, that's where the best pop music could be found. Including Johnny Wakelin's "Black Superman", to which you can listen for free at this link. (You can also hear his song "In Zaire", also about Ali and Foreman's "Rumble in the Jungle".) But it was "Black Superman" that I used to wander around singing:

Muhammad, Muhammad Ali
He floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee
Muhammad, the black superman
Who calls to the other guy I'm Ali catch me if you can

What does this have to do with poetry? Well, first, I should note that during his smack-talking days, Ali was quite the slam poet. "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, your hands can't hit what your eyes can't see" is just one example. Many more can be found in his press conference appearances pre- and post-fights.

But the reason I'm talking about Ali is because at the very end of last year, Candlewick Press put out a wonderful book by Charles R. Smith Jr. called Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali, illustrated by Bryan Collier. This book is a biography of Ali, told in Ali-like verse that is separated into twelve chapters.

Each chapter is a poem that describes part of Ali's life - his birth in the segregated south into a family in which his ancestors had been slaves; his childhood and development as a boxer; his early boxing career and his Olympic achievement in Rome; the development of his brash public persona; his boxing bout with Sonny Liston that earned him his first heavyweight championship; his decision to embrace Islam, ditch his birth name, Cassius Clay, because it was rooted in slavery in favor of the name "Muhammad Ali", and his position as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war; the career ramifications of his decision to refuse to fight in the war; his loss in the fight with Frazier in Georgia (where he could fight because there was no boxing commission, including Ali's derision of Frazier as an "Uncle Tom") and subsequent fights setting up his challenge to reclaim the heavyweight championship; the "Rumble in the Jungle" - a title fight against reigning champ George Foreman in Zaire ("Ali! Boo-ma-YAY!"); his rematch against Smokin' Joe Frazier and the ferocity of that particular match; a loss by decision to Leon Spinks, making Spinks the new heavyweight champion, followed by a decision to retire; the post-retirement bouts in order to earn a few paychecks, and the reasons for the need for money explained; and his out-of-the ring life as a father and, in later years, man with Parkinson's syndrome. The text of the book ends in 1998, with Ali lighting the Olympic torch in Atlanta. The timeline following the text runs through 2005, and his receipt of a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the opening of the Muhammad Ali Center in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and his being awarded the Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Germany.

All of this could be the stuff of legend, but Charles Smith avoids the book becoming a panegyric. He keeps it real by including some of the bad along with the inspiring and the good. Ali was an inspired fighter and an inspirational speaker, but along with his uplifting words on race and the horrors of war, Ali generated some truly ugly taunts when it came to dealing with other fighters. Along with his dedication to the Muslim faith and his search for peace and integrity, Ali's personal relationships were not always terrific, whether it was with women or some of his staff. Smith doesn't go into graphic detail, but enough information is given to present at least the basic facts faithfully, without whitewashing any of it.

And right about now, I'm guessing this is what you're thinking: This biography sounds great, Kelly, but I thought you were going to talk about poetry. Where's the POETRY?

Ask, and you shall receive. And if you'd like to hear it as well as (or instead of) reading it, Charles is only too happy to oblige, and you can access this (and three other poems) as audio files at his website.

ROUND ONE: The Golden Child
"I always felt like God made Muhammad special,
but I don't know why God chose me to carry this child."
—Odessa Clay, Cassius Clay's mother

Bathed in beautiful light
from parental love,
brown skin shimmers
with a glow from above.
In 1942, the seventeenth of January,
you entered the world
in Louisville, Kentucky.
Whites Only stores
and Whites Only parks
sifted you out
because you were dark.
No Negroes Allowed
and No Colored signs
created separate worlds
and drew color lines,
but your middle-class parents
managed to survive
through hard work and faith
and were able to provide
you, their first child,
and your little brother later,
with food, shelter, clothing,
and something much greater:
that was passed
to you from day one,
that was passed
to you, the new son
of mother Odessa
and father Cassius Clay,
who also passed the torch
of your name
that birth day,
passed down to you
from a white farmer who
inherited a plantation
and your great-grandfather too.
But Clay freed his forthy slaves
during America's dark days,
then fought to end slavery
and fought to change ways
and laws
and thinking
deep in the South,
using newspapers,
and his mouth.
He fought with a spirit
that lives in you today,
reflected in your name,
Cassius Marcellus Clay,
reflecting love from your parents,
who had faith and belief
that God would watch over you
and provide inner strength.

Now, in the actual book, this poem appears on one page, split into three columns, with a piece of art by Collier on the facing page showing the infant Ali lying atop a quilt. It is one of the shortest poems in the book, some of which go on for pages with multiple columns per page, which gives you an idea of the commitment that Smith had to getting the information right. The illustrations throughout the book are a combination of watercolor and collage, and they add a tremendous amount of impact to the text.

Now, I feel it incumbent upon me to address a possible question about all these lengthy, skinny-lined rhyming poems about Muhammad Ali. Because when I first got the book and opened it, I thought "Egad - that's a lot of skinny-lined rhyming text. Won't it get old fast?" And I'm wagering that some of you are wondering the same thing, or would be if you were thumbing through the book. And in all seriousness, the answer is yes and no. Yes, it gets a bit old for your eye to see so many skinny columns on the page, so from a book design standpoint, it was rough going. But they broke up the text with illustrations and occasional insertions like REALLY BIG QUOTES, and with page turns, and with art placement in different ways, so it's not so overwhelming.

But the NO is so much more important, because the actual reading of the poems doesn't get old at all. This book comes in at 80 pages, and those skinny columns and punchy rhymes (pun intended) push you along at a pretty good clip. And the word choices are wonderful, particularly in the fight scenes which actually get a bit too graphic for really young readers or squeamish girls in places, but I imagine that boys would read those same passages and call their friends over and read them again, looking at each other with awe and in glee and exclaiming "COOL!"

A sample of what I'm talking about, from "Round Seven: "Who You Callin' Tom?":

Out of nowhere like lightning
came a leaping left hook
filled with Uncle Tom anger
as Frazier's fist shook
your brain in your skull,
snapping your neck back,
when his fist met your jaw
with one mighty CRACK!
sending millions of ants
into your body as the mat
rose up to smack
your beaten brown back.

From later in the same chapter, and a fight with Ken Norton:

Ten fights,
ten wins,
all led up to Ken
Norton, a boxer
and former marine who
posed a big problem
for you in round two
when his rock-solid fist,
released from way back,
slingshot your cheek
and broke your jaw with a CRACK,
pooling your mouth with blood,
marinating your mouthpiece;
you continued to fight
using your ring expertise.

In all those 80 pages there are only a handful of what might be considered forced rhymes or manipulated line breaks, and to be honest, they're still in keeping with the nature of Ali's delivery style, which Smith channels extraordinarily well. Earlier this year, as part of this year's Summer Blog Blast Tour, I posted an interview with Charles Smith, the remarkable poet who has managed to tell Ali's life in Ali-like rhyme, complete with brutal fight scenes, upright integrity, and inspirational triumphs. During that interview, Smith talked about the large amount of research that went into this book as well as his process in selecting what to include and what to omit:

The frustrating thing that turned out to be a blessing in disguise was the fact that a lot of the info on him was scattered in various books; some books focused on just his fights, some focused on his politics, some focused on his battles with particular boxers such as Frazier, so much so that I said, “I wish there was just one book that had everything.” That’s when a light bulb went off and I said, I’ll do that book. To that end, I felt I needed to show him as a man with vulnerability, hubris and dignity that would reflect a whole person not just a caricature. My editor helped in that regard because she didn’t want a sanitized version of his life and when I read somewhere that he wanted people to know his whole story, not just the highlights, that’s when I knew I had to do his wishes justice by showing every part of him.

When it came to creating the poetry, Smith explains his process over at his website. Here's a quote from his site that gives some insight on what he did:

I wanted the book to represent every part of this remarkable man and do it in such a way that hasn’t been done before. Once I had all the facts, double and triple checked, I then had to put it into verse. Each word was chosen with care, which made each line strong, which made each verse strong, which made each chapter strong, which made the book strong. Since it’s about boxing, I wanted it to feel like a boxing match, so to do the fight scenes, I watched old movies of the actual fights and wrote down what I saw, starting with the introductions of each fighter and where it took place.

Most of the images inside the book include people, usually composed in collage format. The only inside spread I could find available on the 'net, however, is the image at the start of the final chapter, which appears not to involve collage, but to be a straight-up watercolor. Feast your eyes on the image that leads off the last chapter, "Round Twelve: Muhammad on the Mountain":

As I said at the start, if you love sports, biography or poetry, this book is for you. And maybe, just maybe, if you pick it up because you love sports, you'll find out that you like biography or poetry just fine. Sports fans are encouraged to try some of Smith's other sports-related books, including several about basketball.

No comments :