Cassius Clay Trades Rhymes with Village Poets
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March 14, 1963, Vol. VIII, No. 21
By Stephanie Gervis
In one of the most bizarre triumphs since P.T. Barnum had two of his midgets ceremonially married at Greenwich Village's Grace Episcopal Church, in the middle of nineteenth century, the fight game's answer to Cyrano de Bergerac held forth last Thursday in an improbable high-noon poetry reading on Bleecker Street. The reading was in preparation for his Madison Square Garden bout with Doug Jones this week.
The scene was the Bitter End, but it looked more like Clancy's Gym. It was for the press only -- there wasn't room for anyone else. The place was jammed with cigar-smoking sportswriters, old pros who had been covering boxing for decades. They weren't quite sure where they were. "Is this what they call a beatnik restaurant?" "A coffee house night club," explained proprietor Fred Weintraub. "Yeah, two drinks and you think you're at Toots Shor's!" But whatever their nostalgia for uptown and Toots, they moved right in to the free spread provided by the accommodating management of the "coffee house night club."
It almost looked like there wouldn't be any room for the star. But there is always room for Cassius Marcellus Clay. He appeared impeccably in a tuxedo as the clock struck twelve, mounted the little stage, situated himself in the spotlight, and announced, "I'm here to knock out a bum named Jones." And his room full of straight men responded.
One of the more aesthetic-minded members of the press inquired as to whether the rhythm of Mr. Clay's poetry helps his rhythm in the ring.
"After talkin' so much I gotta win, so it makes it tough on my opponents. Gonna leave the first day I lose...gonna hop the fastest jet out of here...I don't care if it goes to Russia." But he didn't seem worried about any imminent departures. "I'm the world's greatest fighter -- the most outspoken and the boldest and the fastest and the prettiest." And there was a rhythm to his words.
"Do you consider yourself a beat poet?"
"What do that mean? I'm a country boy."
"You know, beatniks."
"Oh, you mean the guys who look like Castro, the ones who look like the Smith Brothers? I'd like to get in a ring with one of them." And he reminisced about an incident on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco, a discussion he had had with a "beatnik." "He was so ugly, and I was tellin' him about it."
Meanwhile, almost unnoticed, seven Village poets, veterans of the coffee house circuit, had seated themselves on the stage at a respectful distance behind boxing's Lord Byron. There were Howard Ant, who had courageously refrained from shaving off his beard for the occasion, his stable -- all girls -- Jill Castro, Kathleen Fraser, Diane Wakoski, Betty Taub, Ree Dragonette, and Doe Lindell.
Clay went on talking about himself. "Me and Liston will tangle seven months after I annihilate Jones...I'm too pretty to be hit. Girls don't like ugly men, so I don't want to get cut. I'm a party man."
"Aren't you surprised to see all these people here?" asked the Madison Square Garden PR man, setting up his star attraction for another line. And he got it.
"I'm not surprised. I'm here."
Finally, someone noticed that seven other poets were also there, and the reading began. Howard Ant led off with a poem on horse racing with just enough of the Runyonesque to make it recognizable to the audience. Diane Wakoski rose and said she was read a poem called "Cock Fight Under the Magnolias," and the boys laughed. they listened patiently to Jill Castro on "impressions of a summer day," Betty Taub on motherhood, Ree Dragonette on love. They suffered it gallantly, knowing that it was a set-up for their boy...
Finally it was Cassius' turn. He was the only one whose hands didn't shake.
"'Ode to a Champion: Cassius Marcellus Clay,' by Cassius M. Clay," he announced, launching into a paean of self-praise too long to quote but full of internal rhymes like "I'll battle and rattle his bones" and alliterations like "mighty measured blow."
When he finished someone asked him to do it again.
"What for?" he asked.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]