This is part 1 of a series introducing poetry to those who have had bad experiences reading poems.
Rubin “Hurricane” Carter grew up poor but determined to succeed. As an athlete he was a great boxer, and in his early twenties was a top contender for the middleweight championship. But in 1966 he was accused of committing a triple homicide. When he arrived for trial he was wearing a $5,000 dollar diamond ring, a gold watch and an expensive suit. No one could have foreseen such a dizzying fall from heights, for he was convicted and ordered to serve three life sentences, and, we know now, he was unjustly accused.
Arriving in prison he immediately spoke to the guard in charge, and informed him and the other guards that he was not a prisoner and would act accordingly. No man could lay a finger on him without a fight; and Carter, never complaining, put all his efforts toward studying law, jurisprudence, philosophy and any subject that would correct the injustice.
Almost 20 years later he finally won his freedom. He walked away from prison without uttering a word to anyone and resumed his life as though nothing had happened, for, to Carter, nothing bad had happened. Inconvenient, yes; wrong, of course, but his life would not be destroyed by that which was out of his control.
Instead, this behemoth of inner strength, chose to focus on what he had control over--which are the only things any of us have control over--his attitude, his beliefs, and his will.
Men such as Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela went through similar experiences, by being thrown in jail, and instead of choosing to allow the “bludgeonings of chance,” to bow their heads, they chose to bear and forbear, to take those actions which were in their control. A fellow inmate of Nelson Mandela’s said that “he always made the point, if they say you must run, insist on walking. If they say you must walk fast insist on walking slowly. That was the whole point. We are going to set the terms.”
Hopefully no one reading this will spend decades in prison. But the fact is that no human life--no matter how blessed or fortunate in any given moment--is lived without setbacks, disasters, failures.
That your job will one day be outsourced is likely--what you do and how you react, before and after, is up to you; that your significant other will leave you in your lifetime is a strong possibility—how you react, blaming them rather than seeking to understand what went wrong, is up to you; that a downturn in the economy will wipe out a chunk or all of your savings is a common occurrence—how you pick yourself up is decided by you; that you will grow older, lose skills and energy, your job threatened by youth and new technology is a fact—how hard you push to learn new skills and progress is up to you.
The below poem is called “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley. It is no coincidence that it has become the credo of men like Nelson Mandela who spent 27 years unjustly imprisoned. The poem’s use of visual language, rhythm and connotation invokes the very emotions a man with this kind of inner strength feels during his most trying moments.
Leonidas when with his 300 Spartans faced a million Persians felt this emotion; Ulysses S. Grant, when facing a brutal, determined enemy felt it; Abraham Lincoln when facing enemies in politics and war felt it. By experiencing the poetic language you experience the emotional strength and fortitude these men and many more like them had.
Thus, without having to go through the horror of these disasters, you can still gain the wisdom of their experiences. And, accordingly, a part of their strength becomes yours.
POETRY READING TIP: Read Out Loud!
Poetry utilizes all elements of language; the sound of the words, the dictionary definition and the emotional connotative meaning. (For connotation think of the difference between saying “fillet mignon” versus a “hunk of dead cow meat.” Both refer to the same thing, but one feels more refined and sumptuous).
To experience the poem fully, hold it in front of you, and read very slowly.
For a masterful reading of this poem by the actor Morgan Freeman, listen to the recording below. Also, this will help you get an idea as to how slowly you can read poetry. It takes him almost a minute and a half to read these sixteen short lines
by William Ernest Henley
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.