When I was a kid, we had this book called The Best Loved Poems of the American People. When I first discovered this book, I totally thought that was true…that these poems were indeed the best loved ones of the American people. Since I had never heard of any of them, I memorized a few of the titles and verses in the book of poetry, went to school and peppered my conversations with titles and quotes from these poems so that people would see that I was “in the know.” I mean, I didn’t want to be one of the American People who didn’t know any of these supposedly “best loved” poems. I figured, based on the title, that everyone would know them. I asked my friends and my teachers if they had heard of this one or that one or that one or this one. Now, looking back, I see that asking other 9 year olds was kind of ridiculous. But none of my teachers knew any of the poems I mentioned, either. So my conclusion was that there must have been a vote back in the 1920’s or 1930’s (before my teachers were born) where a bunch of newspapers asked readers to send in their favorite poems. Then, all the newspapers got together and sorted out the poems into stacks, so that all entries for this poem was in one stack, all entries for that poem were in another stack and so on. Then…they took the 100 largest piles and said, “These! These are the best, loved poems of the American people! By Jove, we’ll include them in a book so that all the people of America can learn to love them, too.”
Anyway, after I discovered this book on our shelf, my dad saw me reading it one day and shared with me his favorite poem. At 9, I had no clue what the poem was about or what it meant, but after I started going to catholic school in 7th grade (1982 for those keeping score at home) and hearing, for the first time in my life, about God and His divine plan and what not, I remembered a poem from the book that was the complete and total opposite of what I was now hearing from the teachers. I went home and got the poem book down off the bookshelf. I had long since forgotten the name of the poem, so I glanced through each one, looking for that last line that I remembered quite clearly. I thought, but wasn’t certain, that this was the same poem my dad had showed me. Or it could have been just one of the many I had read years ago, so I went to ask him. He didn’t have to look at the book. He had it memorized and recited it to me. It was called “Invictus,” by Wm. Ernest Henley. I think that this poem served to shape my belief structure more than anything else.
This poem didn’t show up again until October of 2005 at my dad’s funeral. Only, it wasn’t exactly THAT poem. I was awfully surprised when the reverand/pastor/monsignoir/priest guy read a poem that he “knew was [my dad]’s favorite.”
The following link has both the poem that my dad shared with me years and years ago, (on the left) and the poem that was read at my dad’s service (on the right).
Invictus and My Captain <—-Click this
I asked my mom where that poem came from and why it was read, and she said, through her tears, “Because your daddy wanted it.”
In the house where I grew up, there was never any talk of religion. However, at some point it had to have been mentioned because I knew there was someone named God who lived up in the sky on a cloud. He sat on a throne and watched angels bowl (i.e. thunderstorms). I had no inkling about why they were bowling. I just knew that they bowled and, I assume, slept when they weren’t bowling. It was all a very storybook-ish type image. I was raised with a very strong “personal responsibility” motif and that it was MY choices, right or wrong, that would turn me into whoever I would eventually become.
So, to hear that poem read, and by my dad’s request at that, I felt….what…betrayed? Angry? Disappointed? Confused? All of the above? It was totally different from how I was raised. It was so foreign to me that I could almost hear the screeching of tires as my “emotional involvement” in the funeral proceedings came to a stop. Everything from that point up until they played Taps at the graveyard had no meaning or impact for me. It was as if I was at some stranger’s funeral.
From what I know about my father, and from my experience with a few other people I’ve known in my life, I think that as some people get older, they tend to WANT to believe more because they know that they’ve almost reached the end. In my humble opinion, I think that’s like cramming for the test the night before. I mean, how is it that a lifelong theory of thought gets tossed out the window based on the fear that there might not be…and the hope that there will be…something more? And if it’s based on hope, I don’t think that should qualify as “faith,” because the two are different.