On Poetry, Beauty, the Body, and Ali

1. I used to write poetry, which, at the time, offered both emotional flexibility and rigor. It also offered a way to talk about beauty without feeling more trapped in or compromised by my body than I already did. On the page, poets always seemed to be dancing. However awkward or imperfect or compromised their bodies were in the physical world, in their poems, they took on new forms.

2. I remember realizing that if you are a woman or if you are black and if you are both, your own presence in your poems could be as much of a complication as a release, always tangled up, always interactive. And so when Maya Angelou writes, “I am a woman/ Phenomenally,” it’s a dance as much as it is verse.

3. Today, the best thing about being any writer in a body is that there are poets everywhere, dancing, vulnerable, and black. Kanye West is exuberantly, confidently, and even embarrassingly alive, singing “I just want to feel liberated, I, I, I/ If I ever instigated, I’m sorry/Tell me who in here can relate, I, I, I.” The lyrics are sculptural—Kanye’s “I” struggles to break into free-form.

4. Maya and Kanye would have to be within a lineage that includes Muhammad Ali, who danced and dropped bars, was black and a moving image all at once. Ali meant to instigate, and tangoed around the ring in all his caprice, finding physical, lyrical, and political forms to express his beauty. His body was coded as threat and it was as if he said, You’re right! Fear my body and revere it!

5. Ali was convinced by his own speech and affect, but not aimlessly nor emptily—he was showing off his beauty to the black kids who would drink it up and then dare to make their own known and felt. Ali spoke to them in the way young black Kanye fans understand Kanye to be speaking to us.

6. I stopped writing poetry when it felt like my body kept shattering, fragile yet unimpressionable like a screen, and everything I wrote came out like a staccato and dissonance. I did not believe my beauty to be exceptional, could not leap forward with elegance, could not instigate, was not phenomenal, and definitely not The Greatest.

7. Ali’s beauty was not only aspirational but perpetual. Was not only in images but in poetry, in dance, in the body. Every great poem I wanted to write was one where I pronounced belief that I had this kind of beauty or recognized it in the world. And so poetry became dance and criticism became boxing and as I attempt to do both at once, I imagine Ali, the prettiest, recognizing, suddenly, that butterflies don’t fly, they float.

Cassie da Costa is a writer who focuses on moving image and performance. She's based in Brooklyn and works as a member of The New Yorker's editorial staff while also producing the magazine's video podcast, The Front Row, featuring film critic Richard Brody.

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