Rod Blagojevich has done more to introduce poetry to the public sphere than any politician I know of.
Blagojevich is no intellectual, but he is an avid reader. At a press conference after his arrest, Blagojevich recited several lines from “Ulysses,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Following his sentencing last week, he quoted Rudyard Kipling’s “If.”
Now, Blagojevich is going to prison. He’ll need a new canon for that experience. Imprisonment, because it encourages reflection and allows time for writing, has produced a rich literature. Here are some poems either written by prisoners or popular with prisoners, including “Invictus,” which inspired Nelson Mandela during his 29 years of captivity, and gave its name to the recent movie about his life.
“Cell Song,” by Etheridge Knight
Night Music Slanted
Light strike the cave of sleep. I alone
tread the red circle
and twist the space with speech
Come now, etheridge, don't
be a savior; take your words and scrape
the sky, shake rain
on the desert, sprinkle
salt on the tail
of a girl,
can there anything
good come out of
From “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” by Oscar Wilde
The vilest deeds like poison weeds
Bloom well in prison-air:
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
And the warder is Despair.
“Invictus,” 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.
From “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” by Maya Angelou
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.