Background for Poets
Background for Boxers
Poetry Goes to the Fights
A Glimpse of Beau Jack
Night. My father and I are walking home
along a pavement raked by swirling snowflakes
wherever the wind kicks up. Having just emerged
from under the beamed shadows of the El
we cross to the Arena, heading home
—to mashed potatoes, sisters, downcast eyes,
anger and sullen silence—past the wall
in which a door stands open and I see
in luminous blackness hundreds of black shapes,
heads and shoulders, the sides of faces silvered
in swirls of smoke, the embers of cigars
glowing an instant and then blacking out—
far off in the black depths the source of light,
the canvas square of ring circled by kliegs
and a slim brown man who has a bigger man
pinned on the ropes, digging blood-red gloves
methodically, like a man chopping wood,
into his ribs, the white skin splotching pink.
Could I have seen at that distance the rocking
and ripple of muscle under the bronze skin
or did I just imagine all of this?
It couldn’t have been much more than a second—
my father was a very impatient man—
but there it is, as radiant as just now.
My arm was jerked hard, I was dragged away
wondering desperately who the man was—then
there he was on a poster, fists cocked, poised,
smiling behind his gloves. I have forgotten
the name of his opponent but not his name.
I loved him, and I wanted what he had—
not the jeweled belt, the title, money, fame—
what could they mean to an eleven-year-old?
No, what I wanted was the pride and power,
prowess and speed and grace, and even more,
fearlessness in the face of bigger men.
And that most beautiful of names—Beau Jack.
ROBERT MEZEY grew up in Depression-era Philadelphia. His father remained
unemployed until WWII when he found work as a welder. Mezey came to poetry
early, and when he was just fourteen—with the help of his teacher Dr. Sandstrom—began translating into English the ancient Roman poets Virgil and Catullus. He studied poetry and literature at Iowa University and Stanford, and
in 1969 edited an influential anthology, Naked Poetry. Robert Mezey’s books of
poetry include The Door Standing Open (1970), Evening Wind (1987) and
Poems (2000). He recently retired as professor and poet-in-residence at Pomona
College, Claremont, California.
Background for Poets
This Georgia-born lightweight and welterweight (1921-2000) never learned to read
and write yet rose to become one of the country’s most beloved champions in the
40s, in the heyday of the sport.
Starting at age 15 he participated in those bizarre and frightening competitions
that Ralph Ellison gave an unforgettable account of in his classic The Invisible
Man. The battle royal required several blindfolded men to swing wildly at
each other until just one was left standing, the victor. In most cases it was
white men of means who set these into motion by offering a cash award as an
He was “Beau Jack” to the grandmother who raised him, and upon her death he made
the nickname his professional moniker and moved east. While working as a
bootblack in the Augusta National Golf Club he struck up a friendship with the
champion golfer Bobby Jones who raised enough money from the club members to buy
time and training for Beau Jack.
He scored forty knockouts and, to this day, no boxer has fought so many main
Madison Square Garden as Beau Jack. In the famous 1944 “War Bonds Fight” he and
opponent “Bobcat” Bob Montgomery turned over all the 35 million they raised for
the war effort, keeping none for themselves. At that time, no sports event, not
even the Joe Louis fight, had ever raised so much for a cause.
Though he lived well during his peak years, after his retirement in 1955 he
returned to the Augusta National Golf Club, resuming his old position as a boot
black. He carried on with this job for the remainder of his life. Onetime boxer
Joe Rein, who knew him
during and after his career, remembers Beau Jack as a warm, good humored man who
never showed a trace of bitterness or remorse.
Beau Jack was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991.
British journalist and boxing writer, Tracey Pollard, contributed this
anecdote to the Beau Jack legacy. Its truth was verified, she says, by her "encyclopaedic
Muhammad Ali came within the vicinity of Beau Jack's shoeshine stand and
Beau offered to shine Ali's shoes. Ali replied, "No, allow me to shine your
shoes." And he did.
Background for Boxers
Many of the most effective contemporary poems create a strong sense of place—an environment so convincing we feel we’re drawn into this world. And it seems
to me Robert Mezey’s poem invokes not only a lost time and place but a mood.
This mood might contain several emotions, but more than anything the poem wraps
itself around a sense of longing, the child’s desire for power and beauty, a
different life. A brilliant moment occurs when the poet focuses on that instant
he’s being pulled fiercely away from the thing he most wants to get close to. To
me, the image seems so tangible, so physical, that I can almost feel that hard
tug on my arm as everything in me strains toward a vision glimpsed through a