Ask me to name a famous poem that memorializes a leader who galvanized his people and helped create the kind of change that will be talked about for centuries after, and I will default to Walt Whitman’s 1865 poem about the death of President Abraham Lincoln, “O Captain! My Captain!” more often than not. Partially because I was eight years old when Dead Poets Society came out, and I dreamed of one day jumping atop a desk to recite the poem as an act of defiance against some crummy teacher or principal — but I also believe that the task of memorializing a great leader is best left to a (or perhaps the ) great poet of that leader’s era.
Our world became somber. Our skies were leadened. His day is done
So writes Maya Angelou in a long poem about Nelson Mandela, composed at the request of the US Department of State, called His Day Is Done. The poem, lovingly packaged and published by Random House, touches on his struggle (“Scarred by the savage atmosphere of racism,/ Unjustly imprisoned/ In the bloody maws of South African dungeons”), while also celebrating his life. Angelou describes the “grace and gratitude” he showed after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and recalls how he “[i]nvited, courteously” his former prison guards to watch his inauguration. In short, she does the job of memorializing the great Mandela as only a writer of her stature and talent can. She looks to the future, proclaiming that we will never forget what Mandela stood up for, and they will not dishonor him.
These days, it’s an event in itself when the 85-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner gives us any new work. And when one of the world’s greatest poets pays such loving, perceptive tribute to one of the world’s bravest leaders, it’s worth reading what she has to say about him.