Teaching poetry badly, denying the captains of our souls

At the Poetry Foundation’s blog, Harriet, Wanda Coleman wrote about running into a student who hated to write poems, because she’d been conditioned to think poetry is difficult and dense:

I am forever grateful for that nameless White female, who, in her clunky shoes and calf-length tweed skirts, passed out poems on mimeograph paper to her first-grade students. When talking to students myself, I often tell the story of the very prim and ebony Mrs. Covington who challenged her junior high school English class to memorize “Invictus” before telling us who had authored the poem.

Words to teach by.  “Invictus?”  You know it, even if you don’t think you do.

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.

A poem written in 1875 by William Ernest Henley.  Wikipedia describes it well enough:

At the age of 12, Henley became a victim of tuberculosis of the bone. A few years later, the disease progressed to his foot, and physicians announced that the only way to save his life was to amputate directly below the knee. It was amputated at the age of 25. In 1867, he successfully passed the Oxford local examination as a senior student. In 1875, he wrote the “Invictus” poem from a hospital bed. Despite his disability, he survived with one foot intact and led an active life until his death at the age of 53.

How is your National Poetry Month going?  Go read Harriet.


One Response to Teaching poetry badly, denying the captains of our souls

  1. Porlock Junior says:

    Another good piece to reprint, though the sentiment is just too terribly old-fashioned, of course.

    I see the Wikipedia article describes Henley as a friend of Robert Louis Stevenson. The way I heard it (in Thurber’s The Years with Ross, IIRC), he was a friend of Stevenson until they got into a life-long feud, over I don’t know what. One of the two wrote,”What is it ends with friends?” And actually, being the model for Long John Silver would not be my first idea of a friendly compliment.


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