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Jewish World Review June 25, 2001 / 4 Tamuz, 5761

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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When poetry becomes destructive

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- SINCE my childhood, I've kept an honored place in my heart for poetry. But even though I've published a few poems here and there, I'm no expert on how to write the stuff or on what makes it succeed.

Still, I seem to have a rather remarkable doggerel detector that beeps and clangs wildly whenever I'm pulled into the force field of the kind of disheartening, overly sincere rhyme one finds too often recited at the funerals of nice people -- rhyme written by, say, Helen Steiner Rice or one of her sing-songy ilk.

It won't surprise you, therefore, that I was quite familiar with "Invictus," the 1875 poem by William Ernest Henley that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh distributed as his last words before being executed. Indeed, I memorized that poem in high school 40 years ago, which is when I concluded that it was little more than an example of a confused and misguided ranting-past-the-graveyard to keep fear away.

So I found McVeigh's choice of the poem an almost perfectly revelatory sign of his own derangement, fear and pathetic braggadocio. The poem, which the crippled Henley no doubt imagined being simply a defiant cry against bad luck, cheapened and degraded what little there was about McVeigh's useless death that hadn't already been defiled and demeaned.

Poetry -- indeed, all words of commemoration and suffering -- should engage the human spirit, lift it, set it free and honor it, all the while being careful to offer some kind of reliable portrayal of reality. It is nearly impossible to kidnap a poem written in 1875 as an ode to strength and have it be a useful commentary on the execution of a man with a twisted mind in 2001.

If "Invictus" is in any way autobiographical, Henley, who was 26 when he wrote it, at least was reflecting on real personal suffering that wasn't self-inflicted. As a youth with tubercular arthritis, he lost part of a leg to amputation and spent 20 months in an infirmary recovering. Indeed, his good friend Robert Louis Stevenson based part of his portrayal of Long John Silver on Henley.

One should always be hesitant to say that the personal experiences of poets have directly resulted in a particular poem, but one can find at least some basis for attributing to Henley's own life the stubborn words he penned in the poem: "I am the master of my fate:/I am the captain of my soul."

When McVeigh chose to appropriate those words and apply them to himself, it was both laughable and pitiful. By identifying himself with the lines that say, "I thank whatever gods may be/For my unconquerable soul," McVeigh gave stark new evidence that once again he had misunderstood nearly everything about his life, his soul and his country.

In fact, McVeigh's soul long ago had been conquered by hate, by misinformation, by a warped sense of justice that required the deaths of 168 people just so he could make a point of protest against his government. He had sold his soul for a pile of fertilizer and ammonium nitrate.

Beyond that, he was in no way an innocent man made to suffer at the hands of cruel fate or injustice. To equate him somehow with Christian martyrs or Jewish Holocaust victims would devalue the purity of their own righteous suffering and to misinterpret the meaning of McVeigh's wasted life and worthless death.

In the end, of course, we can be brave and our courage can inspire generations yet unborn, but in an eternal sense we are not the masters of our fate or the captains of our soul. And it's rank arrogance and bad theology to imagine that we are.

We are creatures of a creator, pottery of a potter, though it is true that we are infused with the unspeakable gift of free will that allows us to ignore the creator, reject the potter and run aground on the shoals of our own misplaced audacity.

I have new sympathy for William Ernest Henley. His work -- whatever its dubious merits -- has been dragged onto a bloody political battlefield and asked to give meaning to an act of cruel anarchy. It was a sad and bad use of poetry that helped to veil anything we are supposed to learn from the Timothy McVeighs in our midst.

"Poetry," St. Augustine once said, "is devil's wine." Whatever he meant, it's clear that Timothy McVeigh tried to use poetry as a demonic tool. The result -- as with nearly everything McVeigh touched -- was destruction.


Comment on JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' column by clicking here.


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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2001. All rights reserved