David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: The Poetry of Nelson Mandela


Americans of a certain age, those of us who were college students, say, in the early 1980s, remember well the protests and rallies against South African apartheid and in favor of the United States divestment movement. I was deeply involved in those activities at Boston University between 1982 and 1986 and rallied often on campus in Marsh Plaza in front of the chapel where you can see a sculpture of Martin Luther King, Jr. King studied ethics and philosophy at BU in 1951. It’s where he became “Dr. King” a few years later in 1955.

Looming behind us all, always, was a mysterious, imprisoned hero, Nelson Mandela, the South African revolutionary who was imprisoned for twenty-seven years. After his release in 1990, he was freely elected the first president of the integrated South Africa and served from 1994 to 1999.

I’m sure something of my interest in the relationship between the political and the poetic began with my desire to help end, from afar, even in a small way, South African apartheid. That, and my upbringing as a white Southerner in Texas who found, and still finds, American racism abhorrent and cursed, not to say repulsive and uncivilized. If poetry does not incorporate the body politic, if poetry does not inspire political will, it risks having little value in contemporary life. Even a poem about a sunrise is political in the sense that it turns away from the partisan and toward alertness for the possible.

At the same time, if politics, which is the art of the possible, does not abide the virtues of the poetic—desire, passion, a sense of mortality, a feel for the social fabric and foundations of family, civic life, and political experience, as well as the art of the verve of the living language—then it risks losing all relationship to human aspirations. Politics, like poetry, is the natural place for people to contribute their ideas and heart, time and experience, to the interests of their fellow human beings.

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:Nelson_Mandela

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.

And finally, an ars poetica:

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

To perk up your spirits, Poetry Wire points you to a great list, compiled by the Nation‘s Peter Rothberg, of the top ten songs about Nelson Mandela.


Image credit.

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →