"I am the captain of my soul"

Wed, 19 Oct 2011 10:24:00 +1100

As unexpected as it might initially seem; there is a powerful connection between poetry and terrorism.

That was the view of three members of Deakin University’s Poetry Research Group - Dr Maria Takolander, Dr David McCooey and Dr Cassandra Atherton - when the Deakin Research Channel brought them together for an “on the couch” discussion about poetry as research.

“One of the things I am interested in is the way in which poetry exists in what you might call extra poetic contexts,” Dr McCooey said, “poetry working in places where you wouldn’t expect it to necessarily.

“One of the things that I have written about recently is the relationship between poetry and terrorism which might seem like a very unexpected connection.

On the couch with members of the Poetry Research Group

“But there have been a number of examples in recent times where those two things come together.

“Recently there was an anthology of poetry published by inmates of Guantanamo Bay.

“There was a case in the UK concerning a blogger who called herself a political terrorist and she ended up being the first women in the UK to be charged under anti-terrorism laws there.

“Another interesting example of poetry appearing in this kind of extra poetic context is Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City Bomber, who at his execution made no verbal statement but  for his written statement, he basically was quoting a 19th Century poem by W.E. Henley called Invictus.

The last verse of the poem reads:

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.

"The use of that poem in that way is I think very interesting because it raises questions about what is poetry, how do various uses of poetry change our ideas about poetry and so forth," Associate Professor McCooey said.

The poem also inspired Nelson Mandela during the dark days of his incarceration by the apartheid regimes of South Africa.

He wrote it down on a piece of paper and kept it in his prison cell.

Invictus became the title of the movie about Mandela and his use of the South African rugby union team during the world cup to help bring the nation together post apartheid.

Dr Atherton said Associate Professor McCooey's work also fed into the research that she was doing.

“I started looking at some American poets,” Dr Atherton said.

Adrienne Rich talks a lot about the terrorism in the US.

 “She talks about the water boarding and torture that’s going on and comments on it in her poetry.

“I am also interested in the poet as a public intellectual, so not just the poet in the world but the poet commenting on the world.

“I did a series of interviews around this and probably the most interesting one for me was Dana Gioia who is a poet and a critic but also the former chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts and he talks about how poetry can make changes in the world.

“He was responsible for example for something like The Big Read which got students actively involved in reading classics and reading books to enrich their lives.

“Poetry can be political and I think it is bound up with lots of ideas of the political.”

For Dr Maria Takolander there does seem to be some intrinsic connection between poetry and experiences or emotions of extremity.

“So we see that with the examples of poetry as outpourings in response to the terrorist acts,” she said.

“Poetry appears routinely at funerals and at weddings.  It is something we seem to turn to automatically, unconsciously, in order to express these extreme experiences of loss or of love.”

Associate Professor McCooey said a good example of that was after September 9th, 2011 in New York when after the collapse of the World Towers and the many deaths that followed, there was massive popular and heartfelt out-pouring of poetry.


Dr Maria Takolander
Dr Maria Takolander
Showcase facts
  • Associate Professor McCooey said a good example was after September 9th, 2011 in New York when after the collapse of the World Towers and the many deaths that followed, there was massive popular and heartfelt out-pouring of poetry.
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20th August 2012