Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

Prison Poems for Blagojevich

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    NEWSLETTERS

    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
    prison

    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.