You know Muhammad Ali as the greatest heavyweight boxer ever. Do you know his words landed harder than his punches? Ali, the earliest spoken word artist, is regarded as a pioneering figure in rap music. In fact, he is argued as the first rapper in America. By the 1970s, Ali was already a published spoken word poet, a highly-acclaimed word artist, and an eloquent speaker. His familiarity with the power of words and the magic of rhythm manifests in his poem ‘Me We,’ the world’s shortest poem to date.
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What Does ‘Me We’ Mean?
In simple terms, ‘Me We’ is a poem about one man’s transition from one to the many, singularity to plurality, and selfishness to altruism. It is a story of an individual, in this case, the story of Muhammad Ali, who from the embraces of his former identity frees himself. He lets his soul free from the selfish “me” to the all-embracing “we.” This poem does not contain a narration of events. Instead, it sounds like a proclamation of the speaker to the world.
Origin of World’s Shortest Poem
Ali delivered the poem during his Havard commencement speech on 4 June 1975. When the students in the audience asked him to give them a poem, he said, “Me. We.” There is a debate regarding the last word in the poem. George Plimpton, the founding editor of The Paris Review, in the documentary, We Were Kings (1996) said that Ali uttered the words, “Me? / Whee!” Plimpton himself was present when Ali delivered the speech at Harvard. Whatever the wording may be, both “Me. We.” and “Me? Whee!” make incredible sense. We have analyzed both of these lines below.
Structure and Rhyme
Ali’s ‘Me We’ consists of two syllables, both stressed. The words end with the same vowel sound, but the preceding sounds are different. While reading, the sound of “we” seems stronger than that of “me.” Ali intentionally placed “we” after “me” to convey the power of plurality over singularity. There is another interesting fact regarding the structure of the poem. If a mirror is placed right below the words, the words change their positions, and the poem reads, “We. Me.” Though, it may seem both the forward and backward reading makes the same sense, they don’t.
Analysis of ‘Me. We.’
The poetic device that first strikes readers’ ears is assonance. The words “Me” and “We” end with the same vowel sound “i.” If one dives deeper into the words, it can be understood that the “me” or the individual “self” is an amalgamation of the pluralistic beliefs of “we” or us. On the other hand, the term “me” is a representation of the universal self that is formed by all who reside in it. Then, the word “we” is not a reference to human beings only. It incorporates all the living beings on the planet.
Another important interpretation of the poem is that it, in a way, defines the meaning of poetry. What is poetry? Poetry is a medium of sharing individual experiences with many. It is a mode to convey one’s innermost thoughts, emotions, and feelings to others. When Ali was asked to deliver a poem, he might be encouraging the audience to explore the “me” or the persona. He might be hinting at the purpose of poetry which is to bring the “me” to the “we,” meaning the readers or the audience.
Analysis of ‘Me? Whee!’
Unlike the previous version in which the words end with full stops, this version, regarded as the most accurate, contains two important punctuations. The question mark is often used in poetry either in a rhetorical question or in a direct question. The exclamation mark is used to convey one speaker’s inner feelings, such as joy, grief, excitement, etc.
The first word ends with a question mark. It seems Ali is trying to ask, “What am I?”, or “What is me?” These are not rhetorical questions as their answers are not implied. So, through the expression, “Me?”, the speaker tries to pose a question directly to the audience. They have to decode the meaning of “me” or have to ponder upon what the speaker stands for, what values he cherishes, or what attributes he possesses.
The next line is a rhetorical exclamation. The term “whee” is often used to express one’s heart’s delight, excitement, or exhilaration. In the second line or through the last word, the speaker is implicitly answering the question posed in the first line. He is filled with joy and spontaneity. In one word, he is happy with who he is or the values he stands for.
Muhammad Ali’s ‘Me We’ or ‘Me? Whee!’ is one of the shortest poems ever written. This poem can be regarded as a mode of self-expression. On one hand, it means the relationship between the “self” with all of humanity. On other hand, it defines the purpose of poetry which is to take the “me” or individual experiences and thoughts to the “we” or humankind.
The second word of Ali’s poem is not “we.” In the documentary, We Were Kings (1996), journalist George Plimpton, who witnessed Ali recite the poem, noted that the last word of the poem was, “Whee!” Whee is used as a natural expression of joy, excitement, or exhilaration.
Muhammad Ali delivered the poem after his commencement speech at Havard on July 4, 1975. After the crowd requested him to give them a poem, Ali said the words, “Me? Whee!”
Some of the famous quotes by Muhammad Ali are “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” “His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see,” and “I’ve wrestled with alligators, I’ve tussled with a whale,” etc.
Readers who really enjoyed reading the shortest poem of Muhammad Ali, ‘Me We,’ will also find these poems amusing.
- ‘In this short life that only lasts an hour’ by Emily Dickinson — This poem is about how little humans can control in their everyday lives.
- ‘Beware: Do Not Read This Poem’ by Ishmael Reed — This thoughtful piece is about culture and how language is used to weave stories.
- ‘How to Eat a Poem’ by Eve Merriam — This poem uses eating fruit as a metaphor for reading poetry in order to encourage readers to enjoy poetry.
- ‘A Silly Poem’ by Spike Milligan — This poem is written on a line from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.
You can also read about the relationship between rap and poetry.