One morning at Lulu’s Bakery and Pantry in Salem, MA, several of us Thursday Poets were having a lively conversation about how we were first drawn to poetry. Often it was some poem we were assigned to read in elementary or junior high school, usually a poem that would be considered “an old chestnut.”
I was first introduced to poetry by my mother, who read regularly to her three children from a big dark green anthology The Treasury of the Familiar, first published I think in 1942. I loved the size and heft of the book as well as it’s thin, crinkly pages–at least that’s how I remember them. And, of course, I loved sitting next to my mother while she read to us. “Frankie and Johnny,” “Casey at the Bat,” John Masefield’s “Sea-Fever,” Wordsworth’s daffodils in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” they all mesmerized me. My mother was partial to the Wordsworth, but her favorite poem, the one that meant most to her, made clear by the passionate way she read it, was “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.
I had no idea at the time what tribulations might have caused my mother to recite this poem as if it were her anthem, but her reading impressed me, so I remember those opening four lines to this day, along with other dramatic lines, “My head is bloody, but unbowed,” and, of course the rousing lines with which “Invictus” closes, “I am the master of my fate:/I am the captain of my soul” which braced me during many a bout of teenage angst.
I was startled to read someplace that this poem was a paean to atheism. My mother came froma devout Catholic family, and all three of us children were in Catholic school. I doubt she interpreted the poem that way. Over the years, I’ve puzzled over that characterization. Was it the phrase “whatever gods may be”? The fact that life after death is not characterized as heaven but as “the Horror of the Shade”? Or is declaring oneself the “master of my fate,” “the captain of my soul” too arrogant a statement for a true believer?
In any case, if this poem sustained Nelson Mandela during his imprisonment, I think it’s okay if at times my mother and my younger self took courage from it. My mother’s reading poetry to us when we were so young may have backfired on her. She wanted me to become a lawyer of businesswoman though she didn’t complain when I got a graduate degree in creative writing instead. How could she? She started it all. Since then I’ve widened the range of poems I appreciate, but I’ll always be grateful to my mother and The Treasury of the Familiar for introducing me to the power of poetry.
“April is National Poetry Month. What better way to celebrate than with the Thursday Poets! Watch for us every Thursday as we offer poems and insights that help connect us to the community and beyond.”
Kathleen Aguero: The author of World Happiness Index from Tiger Bark Books. Her other poetry collections include After That, Investigations: The Mystery of the Girl Sleuth, Daughter Of, The Real Weather, and Thirsty Day. She has co-edited three volumes of multi-cultural literature for the University of Georgia Press (A Gift of Tongues, An Ear to the Ground, and Daily Fare) and is consulting poetry editor at Kenyon Review. She teaches in the Solstice low-residency M.F.A. program at Lasell University and in Changing Lives through Literature, an alternative sentencing program. Kathleen has received grants from the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and the Elgin Cox foundation.