Poetry, in fact, has always mattered to mankind. We first hear a faint hint, and nothing more than that, of its incantatory power in the nursery rhymes we learn—or the lyrics of popular rap artists. And through subsequent years of programming at elementary and secondary schools, we may be fed some standardized offering of authentic poems, perhaps much like the prescribed menus at cafeteria lunch counters. For most in America, the rite of passage through high school marks the last time we ever look upon a poem or call upon her beauty to arouse the human spirit. That explains why poetry exists forgotten and ignored as the Cinderella-sibling of fiction, hidden in the back corners and remotest bookshelves of book stores—or, at least, those that still operate these days in bricks-and-mortar outlets.
There are, however, those rare moments when we are reminded that poetry is essential to the soul—even essential to our ability to exist and survive within a hostile universe. No better example of this phenomenon occupies our recent memory than that testament to the power of the human will, that prophet of multiculturalism the world knew as Nelson Mandela. For some twenty-seven years, Mandela survived the confines of a mortal-manufactured hell on earth by the agency of the character forged in the furnace of his will. But that furnace was fueled by his favorite poem: Invictus, a classic invocation of our higher angels penned by the nineteenth-century English poet William Ernest Henley. The special role of that poem in the life of the father of modern South Africa was delivered by a nuanced Morgan Freeman in the movie by the same name. A video clip describing the import of that verse to Mandela appears below.