It was a crisp Wednesday morning in the Pennsylvania coal region when Jack, my brother-in- law, and I drove to Orwigsburg, Pa.. The date was December 26, 1973.
My wife Betty and I had traveled to Pottsville, Pa., to celebrate Christmas with her parents. The Pottsville Republican newspaper had published a short story that Muhammad Ali was training in nearby Orwigsburg for his second bout against Joe Frazier. I don’t remember if the paper mentioned if it was open to the public or not. It didn’t matter to me. I was determined to go.
I had always been a boxing fan. I take that back: I had been a fan of World Heavyweight bouts. Jack was from Minersville, next to Pottsville and shared my interest in boxing.
By 1973 I had three years of photojournalism under my belt. I was editor of a prestigious national trade magazine with an international reputation and a leader in its field.
Never miss a local story.
A key tool in a photojournalist tool kit is access: that’s access to important places and to important people. I was determined to meet Muhammad Ali.
In 1971 Harold S. Pollack, a local furrier, and his brother invited Ali to their mink farm to train. Ali accepted the offer and in 1971 the brothers sold Ali land on Sculp’s Hill in Orwigsburg to construct the then-famous Ali training camp, at Deer Lake, which Ali used for the Foreman, Frazier and Norton matches.
After a short 25 minute ride, Jack and I arrived at the training camp at about 10 a.m.
When we got there, Ali was talking to a large group (about 15-20) of kids about good moral values, being respectful of their parents, correct behavior and overall proper manners.
After that meeting broke up Ali went to the training area, got into the ring (I don’t remember him sparring), then skipped rope and hung around talking to people and I was clowning around.
I was taking pictures all along. I approached him and asked him if I could get together with him for some photos and an interview.
He said that he had to do his morning jog, return to shower and after that, we could get together.
Jack and I hung around. I seem to remember that Ali took off to jog on an unpaved road and I remember a Jeep somewhere.
Ali returned, took a shower and I waited anxiously but patiently. At some point I heard conversation behind closed doors, I opened it and he was sitting on a chocolate brown couch, undressed, and with a towel over his shoulders talking to some 3 or 4 of what seemed to be close associates. He told me that he would let me know shortly when he was ready.
We waited, finally I heard from him and went into a dark lit room, like a log cabin, and I asked him about his meeting with the kids when we arrived. When I asked him about his poetry, he noticed that I had a tape recorder. By way of answering my question about his interest in poetry, he asked me for my tape recorder and recited two poems from memory.
No reading, no teleprompters.
I am at a disadvantage to comment on it. You see, I was trained as an engineer in college. We were taught to think in concrete, objective, absolute terms; to think linearly.
To discuss poetry requires someone who can think in abstract and subjective terms – something which is foreign to me. So I sought the counsel of an expert. I met sometime in 2010 with Dr. Kwame S. N. Dawes, who at the time was the Distinguished Poet in Residence at the University of South Carolina, English professor, Director of the SC Poetry Initiative and Director of the USC Art Institute. You can’t do much better than that.
In seeking his comments about Ali’s “Truth” poem, I first let him “read” the transcript of it without revealing its author: this way his observations would be totally unbiased. After his initial comments, I let him “hear” Ali reciting the poem, and then I showed him who the author was and the picture that I took while Ali was dictating the poem into my cassette recorder. By then, Dr. Dawes had recognized the voice.
His initial comment was that this poem’s style relies heavily on the use of aphorisms, cleverly used. It is a very public poem in its content, uses repetition to offer a meditation on the idea of truth. It has a religious quality not unlike some of the poetry we find in the bible, a book that is replete with poetry. Dr. Dawes’ first impression was that the author was a Christian individual because of the reference to the Christ in the poem.
After I revealed to Dr. Dawes that Muhammad Ali was the author, his opinion did not change. He pointed out that there are some similarities between the Bible and the Koran, inasmuch as Ali is a Muslim, and, of course, Jesus does appear in the Koran, as well. Dr. Dawes said that this poem should be taken for what it is and should not be compared with contemporary works of literature.
I was satisfied with my visit with Dr. Dawes because I did not go to seek a critique of the poem, but informal comments and observations, since I was not qualified to do so.
I had read on Ali’s website many of the one or two-liners that he used in rhyming his predictions of his fights. I was unaware of this dimension of his intellect. At our meeting in Orwigsburg in 1973 Ali recited two poems of similar lengths. I had both of them transcribed, but 41 years have gone by and I was able to find just “Truth”, and it was the one that I shared with Dr. Dawes.
A couple of years later I found the second poem, “Friendship” . Nevertheless, I have seen and heard enough to believe that Ali, besides his dazzling boxing talent, had a gifted mind.
Muhammad Ali and the Columbia connection
Manuel Gaetán, PhD and a Columbia journalist for 28 years, retired as Publisher of Bobbin and President Emeritus of Bobbin International in 1998. He interviewed Muhammad Ali in 1973 and Ali recited a couple of his poems in his hand-held recorder. Dr. Gaetán had them transcribed and analyzed by USC's Distinguished Poet in Residence and Director of USC's Art Institute.
Poems by Muhammad Ali
As dictated to Manuel Gaetán in 1973.
The face of truth is open.
The eyes of truth are bright.
The lips of truth are ever closed.
The head of truth is ever upright.
The breast of truth stands forward.
The gaze of truth is straight.
Truth has neither fear nor doubt.
Truth has patience to wait.
The words of truth are touchy.
The voice of truth is deep.
The law of truth is simple.
Firm through rain and storm.
Facts are only its shadow.
Truth stands above all sin.
Great be the battle of life.
Truth in the end shall win.
The image of truth is the cross.
Wisdom’s message is its rod.
Design of truth is Christ and the
soul of truth is God.
Life of truth is eternal.
Immortal is its past.
Power of truth shall endure.
Truth shall hold to the last.
Friendship is a priceless gift that cannot be bought or sold.
But its value is far greater than a mountain made of gold.
For gold is cold and lifeless, it can neither see or hear.
And in time of trouble is powerless to cheer.
It has no ears to listen, nor heart to understand.
It cannot give you comfort or reach out a helping hand.
So if you ask God for a gift, be thankful He sent not diamonds,
Pearls nor riches but the love of real true friends.