Nothing, Nothing but Hell
The death of champion boxer Muhammad Ali is an occasion to remember one of the strangest moments in popular culture, when Ali collaborated with legendary poet Marianne Moore on a work of verse.
They met in the winter of 1967, shortly before Ali’s heavily anticipated match with Ernie Terrell, and made an unlikely pair. He was a streetwise athlete who liked to turn a phrase, especially against his opponents, and she was the elderly queen mother of American letters, a primly erudite figure with a penchant for lace collars and tricorn hats.
But it was precisely because they were so different that writer and editor George Plimpton decided to bring Ali and Moore together. Plimpton created a lively cottage industry by exploring the boundary between literature and sports, arranging to perform brief stints in professional football, baseball, and hockey games, then writing wryly about his experiences in such well-received chronicles as Paper Lion and Open Net. His first-person accounts, coined “participatory journalism,” played on the contrast between Plimpton’s patrician sensibility and the rough-and-tumble world of the locker room.
While Ali’s approach to poetry sounded intuitive, Moore was, as the professional wordsmith, more formal and deliberative, crafting jeweled observations on clocks and steeplejacks, a china swan and a paper nautilus. When, at Ali’s urging, the pair worked together on a poem, the result—scribbled on the back of a restaurant menu—proved as unusual as their partnership. Moore’s chief contribution was the title. “We will call it ‘A Poem on the Annihilation of Ernie Terrell,’” she told Ali.
Moore wasn’t up to the kind of spontaneous composition Ali favored, so the boxer essentially completed the verse himself. Here’s a sample:
After we defeat Ernie Terrell
He will get nothing, nothing but hell,
Terrell was big and ugly and tall
But when he fights me he is sure to fall.
If he criticized this poem by me and Miss Moore
To prove he is not the champ she will stop him in four . . .