Governor Mario Cuomo is often quoted for his observation that “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Nelson Mandela offers an inspiring counter-point — you can campaign, govern and live in poetry. If you choose.
Nelson Mandela does seem to have been surrounded by poetry.
Poems have been associated with him, attributed to him, written for him, spoken by him.
When he was incarcerated, he read poetry—to himself and to other prisoners. Most of us know Invictus, written by William Ernest Henley forty-three years before Mr. Mandela was born, and it’s no wonder that it resonated with him—and with our understanding of him:
(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.
A poem that is attributed to Nelson Mandela, and from which he is said to have quoted in at least one speech, is “Our Greatest Fear,” which was actually written by Marianne Williamson. It even appears in a couple of quote books under his name, and while I’m glad that official biographers and poetry lovers know who to thank for these gorgeous lines, I can understand the confusion.
Ms. Williamson may not have had Mr. Mandela in mind when she wrote this poem, but she’s captured our idea of his voice and vision so beautifully, that it’s hard to believe otherwise:
“Our Greatest Fear”
It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous,
talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other
people won’t feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory of
God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people
permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.
Poets from all countries and cultures have been inspired to write about Mr. Mandela—about his imprisonment, his endurance, his strength, his powers of forgiveness, his ability to set aside thoughts of vengeance and personal reparation in order to repair a country tearing itself apart.
How else to honor a man who shielded, armed, and opened himself with poetry**than to offer verses that reflect overwhelming support, deep respect, no little affection, and most recently, grieving promises that he and his work will not be forgotten:
Nelson Mandela showed us—among so many other things—the power that is in poetry and the comfort and clarity that can come from finding words that speak to you and for you.
Mr. Mandela’s own words have done that for us.
So, when David Biespiel, who writes terrific poetry articles for The Rumpus, says that Nelson Mandela is a poet in his own right?***
I believe him:
So if poetry can be composed in prose, then surely prose can be composed in poetry.
Here are some of the great “poems” from a true hero of our time, Nelson Mandela. Like Lincoln, now he belongs to the ages:
I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.
For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.
Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.
As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.
There is no such thing as part freedom.
*”Nelson Mandela had a unique gift,” The Telegraph, 6Dec2013
***”The Poetry of Nelson Mandela,” The Rumpus, 6Dec2013