The Witchcraft of Geometry & Muhammad Ali’s “ME / WE”

ME WE II Known for her angles, circumferences, and slants, it is no wonder Emily Dickinson wrote “Best Witchcraft is Geometry / To the magician’s mind” (1158). M. C. Escher would agree.

But I am more interested, at the moment, in the spellbinding power of what is known as the shortest poem ever spoken. During a lecture at Harvard, Muhammad Ali responded to a call for a poem by sparring back, “Me . . . We.” As this poem emerged from the body and through the gestures of speech, the news article from The Harvard Crimson punctuates it as “Me?  Whee!!”

However, as the poem found its way from the body to print, it found further expression through the material semiotics of textual gestures. It is one of the few poems that seems, perhaps, more powerful in the performance of print than in the performance of the body.

The poem, when written, leaves out the punctuation marks, and variations of the poem play with the reflective nature of an M and a W, as some place the ME on top, while others have the ME on bottom, reflecting up to the WE:

Me We

I am in the midst of finishing a course on African American literature, starting with the vernacular of folktales and spirituals and ending with poems responding to Hurricane Katrina and current injustices today. Though this simplifies things, Ali’s poem speaks to the long, long journey of how individuals create and sustain community through the sharing of stories and poems in order to re-write narratives concerning race, human dignity, and power. As Toni Morrison suggests,

If anything I do, in the way of writing novels (or whatever I write) isn’t about the village or the community or about you, then it is not about anything. I am not interested in indulging myself in some private, closed exercise of my imagination that fulfills only the obligation of my personal dreams—which is to say yes, the work must be political. (1071)

“ME / WE” expresses this tension between the individual and the community, but the poem is utterly spellbinding. I have seen the faces of students stare at it—I stare at it—for a solid fifteen to thirty seconds. It is difficult to turn away. The reflection becomes uncanny, strange, powerful, and the brilliance lies in the subtle but crucial capitalization of all letters coupled with the stanza break. When we see capitalization and line breaks to be gestures, we recognize how the print form of the poem continues the material expressions of the vernacular tradition in all of its textual innovation.

Of course, if we lowercase the e, all is lost—or if the W and the M do not line up, all is lost. The geometrical symmetry of these letters stuns us with a type of witchcraft.

This blog post teeters on the rich tradition in rhetoric of Gorgias and Pythagoras who explored “crazy” ideas such as speech-as-spell. And then there is David Abram who sees the poet to be a shaman of sorts who brings healing to the community through the spell of the sensuous (see “The Ecology of Magic” and this interview).

But for now, I just want to stare at Ali’s poem and see where its witchcraft takes me.




Works Cited

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Ralph William Franklin. Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1999. Print.

Morrison, Toni. “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Valerie A. Smith. 3rd edition. 2 vols. New York: Norton, 2014. 1067–71. Print.



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