Archive for the ‘arts’ Category

Sunday Poetry: Evening Hawk, by Robert Penn Warren

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

Evening Hawk

From plane of light to plane, wings dipping through
Geometries and orchids that the sunset builds,
Out of the peak’s black angularity of shadow, riding
The last tumultuous avalanche of
Light above pines and the guttural gorge,
The hawk comes.
His wing
Scythes down another day, his motion
Is that of the honed steel-edge, we hear
The crashless fall of stalks of Time.

The head of each stalk is heavy with the gold of our error.

Look! Look! he is climbing the last light
Who knows neither Time nor error, and under
Whose eye, unforgiving, the world, unforgiven, swings
Into shadow.

Long now,
The last thrush is still, the last bat
Now cruises in his sharp hieroglyphics. His wisdom
Is ancient, too, and immense. The star
Is steady, like Plato, over the mountain.

If there were no wind we might, we think, hear
The earth grind on its axis, or history
Drip in darkness like a leaking pipe in the cellar.

– by Robert Penn Warren

Robert Penn Warren would be better known as a brilliant poet if he were not such a brilliant novelist. I first encountered his overwhelming genius when I read “All the King’s Men”, an historical novel based on the life of Huey Long. It seemed like every word on every page was placed with steady purpose – that every word choice was important and deeper than I could fathom. Reading Robert Penn Warren was the first time that I really “got” how much genius goes into great writing – that writing isn’t just a gushing of what you want to say, but a composition of reinforcing meanings and sounds that work like the lacy steel in a suspension bridge to carry bigger truths. It was the first time I had the awareness and sense to marvel at great writing.

In his poetry, Robert Penn Warren shows the same control and purpose. Unlike untrained poets, he is not content to gush forth with sentimental thoughts of death or love. Unlike academic poets, he is not content to use language to construct meaningless cathedrals of “experimental lyricism”. Instead, he works at his craft until the poem thrills with its language and provokes thought with its meaning.

The first few lines introduce a sight we can relate to – a hawk flying through shadows near the end of a day. In RPW’s hands, though, he transforms the shape of a hawk flying into a scythe, and I realize he’s describing something I’ve seen dozens of times, but never had the imagination to make that very plausible connection.

And then he carries the image a step further – what is this scythe cutting down? Another day – which brings us to the stalks Time, and then to the harvest of this scythe – “The head of each stalk is heavy with the gold of our error.”

BOOM! In a few words, RPW has taken me from a fresh description of a hawk flying to the gold of my error – my failings, flaws and mortality.

Then, to put me further in my place, he tells me I don’t matter. The hawk is unforgiving of my error, but only because the hawk doesn’t understand Time or error – indeed, the whole world is unforgiven. In the steady, immense, ancient turnings of the world, I amount to less than a bat, and all of history amounts to a leaking pipe in the cellar of the world.

Now, just think about that description of history! In utter silence, we think we might hear “history/Drip in darkness like a leaking pipe in the cellar.” Wow! Have you ever lain awake at night because a tiny little drip in a remote part of the house is driving you nuts with its tiny but incessant rhythm? That drip takes over and dominates your mind. It’s tiny but powerful enough to ruin your night.

In the sense of ancient mountains and steady wisdom, the tribulations of our history are nothing. The crying out of tens of thousands dying in Haiti does not disturb the steady grinding of the earth on its axis. In the context of time, the heavy gold of my own errors and faults is no more than one stalk in a vast, immeasurable harvest.

But human history is like a dripping pipe in the cellar. It is what we hear, it grabs our focus and, for the time we lie awake, it is all we can think about.

Do You Like Guitars? You Ought to See this Guy Tonight.

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

Will Matthews is Kansas City’s best jazz guitarist. As far as I know, he’s the world’s best jazz guitarist, but I can’t be as dead certain of that claim. Either way, you can sit a few yards away from him this evening at the Blue Room for $15, and be blown away.

A few years ago, I was flipping through a cut-out bin and found an album entitled “Will Matthews Solo” and it was only a couple dollars. I saw he was a Kansas City native so I gave it a try, with no expectations or preconceptions. That album wound up at the top of my top 50 albums 2000-2009 because I’ve listened to it more than any other album in my collection.

I lack the vocabulary of a true jazz critic, so I’ll quote one: “Those who know me have always heard me say that Will’s tone and phrasing is a perfect blend of George Benson, Grant Green, and Wes Montgomery, supported by his strong chordal concept, which, unavoidably, is pure Kenny Burrell (and why would anyone want to go around that?).” I’ll just add that the music sounds like rubbed brass looks.

It won’t only be Will Matthews tonight, though. Your $15 dollars gets his whole quartet. He’s just released a CD with Mel Rhyne on the Hammond B3 organ, Bobby Watson on the alto saxophone and Kenny Phelps on the drums. I’ll happily pay full price for this one . . .

Sunday Poetry: Birds on the Family Tree, by R. May Evans

Sunday, January 10th, 2010

Birds on the Family Tree

The women in my family are birds,
chirping crisply to communicate,
flitting here and there on a constant quest
for what catches only our shining eyes.

Ever alert, we may startle at any hint of danger
unless you mean to molest our nest – then we peck
with a fury that deters even the noblest birds of prey.

We grind down our problems to a palpable size,
worrying them in our stomach like stones.
(When we think no one’s watching,
you should hear the music we pour from our throats.)

– By R. May Evans

Imagery carries this poem, jumping from metaphor to simile and back, finally, to metaphor. The author, R. May Evans, is a local “artist, writer, activist, feminist, and all-round complex person with Asperger’s syndrome,” so it should come as no surprise that her poetry manages to be challenging yet seemingly naive, deeply personal yet approachable, and accessible but somehow distant.

In “Birds on the Family Tree”, Evans takes a fairly mundane image of ancestral women as birds and pushes it a little further. The first stanza presents introduces the central theme that the women in her family are bird-like, and communicate like birds on a tree. Nothing particularly novel about the presentation or the concept; women as birds is a common, almost universal image in literature and in common language (cute chicks, etc.).

In the second stanza, she introduces danger and strength. Easily startled suggests that they are nervous, while their willingness to take on birds of prey demonstrates that they have the courage to face the challenges of life, particularly when they threaten that which they hold dear. But why are the birds of prey, threatening nests, “noble”? Evans’ work choice indicates a distance from societal norms – the women in her family are willing to fiercely attack what the rest of society deems “noble”, as women throughout history have forced change.

The third stanza is particularly tricky. Her metaphor of women as birds encompasses a simile within it. They are birds, and their problems are “like” stones, grinding in a bird’s gizzard. The metaphor has achieved sufficient reality in the voice of the speaker that it is capable of including its own artifice.

The final two lines return to metaphor – the “music” should not be read to mean only literal music. But why is it only when they think others are not listening that they produce their “music”? The irony is that the poet is producing her own form of music, and publishing it for others to listen to. To be enjoyed, music and poetry must be heard.

You may purchase Truth, Love, Blood and Bones, the volume which includes this poem, from Qoop in either a saddle stitched hard copy for $17.38 or as an ebook to be downloaded in .pdf format for $7.00. It’s raw, emotional stuff – I probably chose the “safest” poem in the collection to write about. You should definitely venture into the world of R. May Evans if you care about helping young artists keep producing challenging work.

Sunday Poetry: Homage to My Hips, by Lucille Clifton

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

Homage to My Hips

these hips are big hips.
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top

– by Lucille Clifton


If women’s poetry is supposed to be quiet and reflective, if large women are supposed to envy their slimmer sisters, if sexuality is supposed to be hushed and reverent – well, Lucille Clifton did not get the memo.

The most obvious element of this poem is its boastful humor. (Note: I initially used the word “cocky” in the place of “boastful”, but the gender issues of my word choice were too distracting.) It clearly is a fun poem, and when you watch Lucille Clifton read the poem, you can see she means it to be fun. Likewise, when you listen to her read it to an appreciative audience, she obviously plays it like a skit.

I won’t murder humor by dissecting it, but I will point out that there is some real artistry involved in this poem. The rhythm is a roughed-up iambic beat, and the line breaks help bring out the meaning. Consider the line “they don’t fit into”. What does your mind fill in when you reach the end of that line? Size 2 jeans? Lacy underwear? Airline seats? Instead, Clifton sweeps all your answers into the dismissive “petty places” and moves forward.

Clifton has been compared to a less verbose Walt Whitman for her free celebration of herself, and I think the comparison is a good one. Her lines are trim and short, while his go on and on, but the joyful spirit bounds through both. Both write in everyday, proudly non-academic language of people on the street. Clifton even brings in a whiff of the Mamas and the Papas’ Go Where You Wanna Go with her “they go where they want to go/ they do what they want to do.” If you want to have some fun at the expense of academia, spend some time with Google and find a few stuffy, pedantic essays by grad students trying to explain in thousands of polysyllabic words what Clifton does in under 80 one and two syllable words.

(Buy Lucille Clifton’s poetry at your favorite independent bookseller. It is approachable and completely appropriate for someone who will appreciate some poetic joy in their life.)

Top 50 Albums, 2000 – 2009

Friday, January 1st, 2010

A friend on Facebook challenged a bunch of us to come up with lists of the top 50 albums for the past decade. Here’s my list.

1. Will Matthews: Solo
2. Radiohead: Kid A
3. Slaid Cleaves: Unsung
4. The Hold Steady: Separation Sunday
5. Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago
6. Jay-Z: American Gangster
7. Arcade Fire: Neon Bible
8. Prince: Musicology
9. Al Green: I Can’t Stop
10. The Decemberists: The Crane Wife
11. The White Stripes: Icky Thump
12. O+S: O+S
13. Trampled Underfoot: May I Be Excused
14. Cake: Comfort Eagle
15. American Steel: Jagged Thoughts
16. Neil Young: Silver And Gold
17. Bob Dylan: Love And Theft
18. Bruce Springsteen: Devils and Dust
19. Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
20. White Stripes: Get Behind Me Satan
21. Nellie McKay: Get Away From Me
22. Randy Newman: Harps and Angels
23. The Raconteurs: Consolers of the Lonely
24. The Arcade Fire: Funeral
25. Kanye West: Graduation
26. My Morning Jacket: Z
27. Damian Marley: Welcome to Jamrock
28. B.B. King: One Kind Favor
29. The Swell Season: The Swell Season
30. Avett Brothers: I and Love and You
31. 50 Cent: Get Rich Or Die Tryin’
32. U2: All That You Can’t Leave Behind
33. Bruce Springsteen: The Rising
34. Son Volt: American Central Dust
35. Thad Cockrell: Warmth and Beauty
36. Land of Talk: Some Are Lakes
37. The Neptunes: The Neptunes Present… Clones
38. Jason Isbell: Sirens of the Ditch
39. Roman Candle: Oh Tall Tree in the Ear
40. Dumpstaphunk: Listen Hear
41. The Strokes: Room On Fire
42. Elvis Costello: When I Was Cruel
43. Tenacious D: Tenacious D
44. Jay-Z: The Black Album
45. Nelly: Nellyville
46. Warren Zevon: The Wind
47. Linda Thompson: Fashionably Late
48. Weezer: Maladroit
49. Eminem: The Marshall Mathers LP
50. Mark Knopfler: Sailing To Philadelphia

I appreciate the challenge, because it got me to go over a lot of music I enjoyed, and it caused me to alter my listening habits so that I know make a real effort to listen to albums rather than individual songs.

Sunday Poetry: Prosody 101, by Linda Pastan

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

Prosody 101

When they taught me that what mattered most
was not the strict iambic line goose-stepping
over the page but the variations
in that line and the tension produced
on the ear by the surprise of difference,
I understood yet didn’t understand
exactly, until just now, years later
in spring, with the trees already lacy
and camellias blowsy with middle age,
I looked out and saw what a cold front had done
to the garden, sweeping in like common language,
unexpected in the sensuous
extravagance of a Maryland spring.
There was a dark edge around each flower
as if it had been outlined in ink
instead of frost, and the tension I felt
between the expected and actual
was like that time I came to you, ready
to say goodbye for good, for you had been
a cold front yourself lately, and as I walked in
you laughed and lifted me up in your arms
as if I too were lacy with spring
instead of middle aged like the camellias,
and I thought: so this is Poetry!

- by Linda Pastan

Poems about poetry are rarely as much fun or as good as this. It starts off by announcing and demonstrating one of the essential secrets to poetry that I love – variations on noticeable rhythm. Pastan does not settle into a “strict iambic line goose-step”; instead, she kicks us around with every form of foot imaginable.

She also treats us to the second secret to poetry that I love – “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” as described by Marianne Moore in another poem about poetry. In this case, the garden itself is the bit of concrete reality that anchors the poem in the everyday world we can relate to. The frost described is a real phenomenon, but it becomes a symbol for the unexpected – both when it comes as common language, or as a warm greeting from a spouse.

(Linda Pastan’s poetry may be purchased at your favorite local bookseller.)

Sunday Poetry: Woodchucks, by Maxine Kumin

Sunday, December 20th, 2009


Gassing the woodchucks didn’t turn out right.
The knockout bomb from the Feed and Grain Exchange
was featured as merciful, quick at the bone
and the case we had against them was airtight,
both exits shoehorned shut with puddingstone,
but they had a sub-sub-basement out of range.

Next morning they turned up again, no worse
for the cyanide than we for our cigarettes
and state-store Scotch, all of us up to scratch.
They brought down the marigolds as a matter of course
and then took over the vegetable patch
nipping the broccoli shoots, beheading the carrots.

The food from our mouths, I said, righteously thrilling
to the feel of the .22, the bullets’ neat noses.
I, a lapsed pacifist fallen from grace
puffed with Darwinian pieties for killing,
now drew a bead on the little woodchuck’s face.
He died down in the everbearing roses.

Ten minutes later I dropped the mother. She
flipflopped in the air and fell, her needle teeth
still hooked in a leaf of early Swiss chard.
Another baby next. O one-two-three
the murderer inside me rose up hard,
the hawkeye killer came on stage forthwith.

There’s one chuck left. Old wily fellow, he keeps
me cocked and ready day after day after day.
All night I hunt his humped-up form. I dream
I sight along the barrel in my sleep.
If only they’d all consented to die unseen
gassed underground the quiet Nazi way.

– Maxine Kumin

This poem hinges on the voice. It’s not about woodchucks, it’s not about killing, it’s about the narrator.

On first reading, Woodchucks is an almost cartoonish tale of farmer vs. varmint, only slightly more serious than Elmer Fudd going after Bugs Bunny. It was written in 1972, and it it weren’t attributed to Maxine Kumin, it could have been mistaken for Carl Spackler’s lone literary achievement.

But there’s that last line – too jarring for a folksy farmer poem, and it makes you reread the entire thing, alert for nuance from Kumin. If you know your writers, you remember that Kumin is an animal rights supporter, unlikely to let a killer of animals off so lightly.

Some commentators see a progression in the ferocity of the narrator, but I don’t think that’s quite it. Despite the narrator’s assurances, gassing the family of woodchucks is not truly more merciful than other methods of killing them. The marketing claim that it is somehow more merciful is undercut by the final lines and the reference to the lives lost in the gas chambers of the Holocaust.

The frustration of the failed initial plan annihilation does, however, reveal a deeper bloodthirst in the narrator. It’s there in the beginning, with “quick to the bone” death being sought, and the “murderer” is already “inside me” when she resorts to bullets.

Those who prefer to read this poem as a progression of viciousness are missing the more pessimistic point of Kumin’s poem. The narrator does not become more dehumanized as the poem progresses – the mass murder of gassing is no less (perhaps more?) dehumanizing than the individual deaths brought by bullets. By the end, the narrator blames the sole survivor for keeping her “cocked and ready”, but that implies that the narrator is a gun by her very nature. You can’t keep a bouquet “cocked and ready”.

On a closing note, did you happen to notice the rhyme in this poem? The rhyming pattern is so subtle – ABCACB – that it is hard to notice, yet makes the poem flow beautifully. Rhyme, in the hand of a master, does not necessarily bring a sing-song tone.

(Purchase Maxine Kumin’s poetry here, or at your favorite bookstore. Her Selected Poems, 1960-1990 is genius for 6 cents a page, or less if purchased used.)

Sunday Poetry: Pioneers! O Pioneers!, by Walt Whitman

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

Pioneers! O Pioneers!

COME my tan-faced children,
Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,
Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?
Pioneers! O pioneers!

For we cannot tarry here,
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,
We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O you youths, Western youths,
So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,
Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the foremost,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Have the elder races halted?
Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas?
We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the past we leave behind,
We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

We detachments steady throwing,
Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains steep,
Conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

We primeval forests felling,
We the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep the mines within,
We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Colorado men are we,
From the peaks gigantic, from the great sierras and the high plateaus,
From the mine and from the gully, from the hunting trail we come,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

From Nebraska, from Arkansas,
Central inland race are we, from Missouri, with the continental blood intervein’d,
All the hands of comrades clasping, all the Southern, all the Northern,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O resistless restless race!
O beloved race in all! O my breast aches with tender love for all!
O I mourn and yet exult, I am rapt with love for all,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Raise the mighty mother mistress,
Waving high the delicate mistress, over all the starry mistress, (bend your heads all,)
Raise the fang’d and warlike mistress, stern, impassive, weapon’d mistress,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

See my children, resolute children,
By those swarms upon our rear we must never yield or falter,
Ages back in ghostly millions frowning there behind us urging,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

On and on the compact ranks,
With accessions ever waiting, with the places of the dead quickly fill’d,
Through the battle, through defeat, moving yet and never stopping,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O to die advancing on!
Are there some of us to droop and die? has the hour come?
Then upon the march we fittest die, soon and sure the gap is fill’d.
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the pulses of the world,
Falling in they beat for us, with the Western movement beat,
Holding single or together, steady moving to the front, all for us,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Life’s involv’d and varied pageants,
All the forms and shows, all the workmen at their work,
All the seamen and the landsmen, all the masters with their slaves,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the hapless silent lovers,
All the prisoners in the prisons, all the righteous and the wicked,
All the joyous, all the sorrowing, all the living, all the dying,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

I too with my soul and body,
We, a curious trio, picking, wandering on our way,
Through these shores amid the shadows, with the apparitions pressing,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Lo, the darting bowling orb!
Lo, the brother orbs around, all the clustering suns and planets,
All the dazzling days, all the mystic nights with dreams,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

These are of us, they are with us,
All for primal needed work, while the followers there in embryo wait behind,
We to-day’s procession heading, we the route for travel clearing,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O you daughters of the West!
O you young and elder daughters! O you mothers and you wives!
Never must you be divided, in our ranks you move united,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Minstrels latent on the prairies!
(Shrouded bards of other lands, you may rest, you have done your work,)
Soon I hear you coming warbling, soon you rise and tramp amid us,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Not for delectations sweet,
Not the cushion and the slipper, not the peaceful and the studious,
Not the riches safe and palling, not for us the tame enjoyment,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Do the feasters gluttonous feast?
Do the corpulent sleepers sleep? have they lock’d and bolted doors?
Still be ours the diet hard, and the blanket on the ground,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Has the night descended?
Was the road of late so toilsome? did we stop discouraged nodding on our way?
Yet a passing hour I yield you in your tracks to pause oblivious,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Till with sound of trumpet,
Far, far off the daybreak call-hark! how loud and clear I hear it wind,
Swift! to the head of the army!-swift! spring to your places,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

- by Walt Whitman

You’ve heard snippets of this poem, read by William Geer (Grandpa on The Waltons), on TV commercials selling Levi’s jeans. It’s brilliant, and I’m sure Whitman is smiling at the audacity.

Like most of Whitman’s poems, “Pioneers! O Pioneers” suffers horribly in dissection. There’s no point in discussing the rhythm or the rhyme; the rhythm is too natural, and there is no rhyme. Instead of those, we have straight passion – Whitman’s words are like bricks thrown at the glass building of complacency.

Whitman is more than rebellion – Whitman is purity of love and self. Whitman calls upon our better side – a celebration of our nation, not a competition of factions. He allows all their due – he mentions Missouri fondly, and describes enough of America to know he is singing of all America.

If you don’t have a copy of Leaves of Grass, the volume that Whitman published to the astonishment of all and the horror of some, go buy a copy; it is one of the basic texts of American literature.

Sunday Poetry: Cherry Blossoms Blowing In Wet, Blowing Snow, by James Galvin

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

Cherry Blossoms Blowing In Wet, Blowing Snow

In all the farewells in all the airports in all the profane dawns.

In the Fiat with no documents on the road to Madrid. At the

Corrida. In the Lope de Vega, the Annalena, the Jerome. In time

past, time lost, time yet to pass. In poetry. In watery deserts, on

arid seas, between desserts and seas. In sickness and in health. In

pain and in the celebration of pain. In the delivery room. In the

garden. In the hammock under the aspen. In all the emergencies. In
the waterfall. In toleration. In retaliation. In rhyme. Among cherry

blossoms blowing in wet, blowing snow, weren’t we something?

- by James Galvin


There are lots of reasons to dislike this poem, but it’s beautiful, and that is enough to overcome the rest. Any editor worthy of a blue pencil would delete the second blowoing in second blowing in the title, and in the final line. Any person with sober judgment would mock the odd typography. It doesn’t rhyme, it doesn’t follow a traditional form, and it is all a set up for the zinger of the final three words.

A better critic would condemn it, but I love it.

Let’s jump right into those final three words, okay? When I first read them, I thought they were heartbreaking – the past tense hinting of a former lover wistfully looking at happier times. But, on rereading, I changed my view. The thought that stretches between the third and fourth lines –

In time

past, time lost, time yet to pass.

– allows me a more optimistic view. There is time for this couple yet to pass. In sickness and in health – a reference to marriage. Children are involved. While retaliation is mentioned, so is toleration.

It all somehow fits. The episodic quality of looking over a life spent together matches the reality of how we (or at least James Galvin and I) gaze backward. We don’t remember the day-to-day existence, but we remember moments with astonishing detail. Galvin remembers driving a Fiat without documents, I vividly recall driving our first car – a Dodge Dart Swinger Special with a bullet hole in the windshield – from St. Louis to Columbia, and stopping at a long-gone Nickerson Farms on the way. But I can’t tell you what we had for dinner 3 nights ago.

The intrusion of the past tense in “weren’t we something” is not at all a statement that “we” are not something now. Instead, it is a recognition that those incidents in the past have changed us – “we” are not the same people we were in the Lope de Vega, or in the delivery room. It’s like our early selves are characters in a play that we can look back over, and see how it all leads to now. The upper Mississippi is not like the Mississippi at St. Louis, and the Mississippi at St. Louis is not like the Mississippi at New Orleans, but the Mississippi at New Orleans could look back at Minneapolis and New Orleans and say “wasn’t I something?”.

(You can purchase James Galvin’s poetry from your local independent bookstore, such as Rainy Day Books, or on the internet here. If you don’t subscribe to the New Yorker, you really should, and if you do it now, you can get my favorite calendar in the world.)

Sunday Poetry: Invictus, by William Ernest Henley

Sunday, November 29th, 2009


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.

– William Ernest Henley

Is this poem great, or is it crap? Is it well-wrought inspiration, or overwrought egotism? Do you love it, or hate it?

John Ciardi, one of the best poetry critics ever to write, was not a fan of the poem, which he described as “perhaps the most widely known bad poem in English”:

“Invictus” (“Unconquered”) is perhaps the most widely known bad poem in English, and certainly there is no trace in it of a technical flaw on which its badness could be blamed. Nor is the poem bad because of its subject matter. Hardy and Housman, among others, have written many poems that take as bleakly pessimistic an attitude toward life as does “Invictus.” The success of many such poems is sufficient evidence that English and American readers can enter into a sympathetic contract to consider the world as some sort of unhappy pit. It is not in the way Henley takes his subject, but in the way he takes himself that the reader parts company with the poet. To take the world as one’s subject and to take the attitude that it is nothing but a place of suffering is one thing; but to react by taking oneself with such chest-thumping heroics, is very much another. One feels that Henley is not really reacting from his own profoundest depths but that he is making some sort of overdramatic speech about pessimism. There is a failure of character in the tone he has assumed. The poet has presented himself as unflinchingly valiant. The reader cannot help but find him merely inflated and self-dramatizing.

Is that criticism fair?

The poem certainly is extreme, and seems almost laughable when adopted by those whose worst “fell clutch of circumstance” is a traffic jam or a failing stock portfolio. The fact that shallow middle-managers quote it after a mediocre review does tempt one to sneer at the poem for its self-dramatizing fans.

More sinister, this is the poem that Timothy McVeigh, the cowardly terrorist and murderer of children, used as his last words. The poem helped him bolster his valiant self-image till the moment of his death.

And yet the poem has served others, as well. Nelson Mandela recited the poem to himself when he was imprisoned during Apartheid, and he taught it to fellow inmates. John McCain recalled the words during his imprisonment in North Vietnam.

The poet himself came by his valor honestly. He suffered from tuberculosis, and wrote the poem after the amputation of his foot, in an age when surgery was not a white-gowned affair, and the handicapped did not get reserved parking for their carriages. Henley remained an active poet, critic and teacher, and thrived despite his disability. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote to him after publishing “Treasure Island”, “I will now make a confession. It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver…the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound [voice alone], was entirely taken from you”.

Despite my admiration of John Ciardi, I disagree with him on this one. “Invictus” is a great poem. It sparks a reaction in those who read it, and we are drawn to apply it to our own lives and situations, however ignoble or bland they may appear to others. The “bludgeonings of chance” in our lives may not be prison torture; they may be challenges at work or at home, and yet we all need inspiration. “Invictus” speaks to our stronger selves, even if our circumstances are not at the extreme of human suffering.