Blogging Poetry from Behind Bars
Prisoners in New England are finding their voice by posting their poetry online.
This is the third post in a three-part series about what Massachusetts prisoners do online. For more, read Part 1: What Massachusetts Prisoners Blog About; or Part 2: What Prisoners Create When They Create Art.
Prisoners have long written poetry from inside the prison walls. For incarcerated men and women—as for all who have the urge to write poetry—Robert Frost’s words ring true: the poem “begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.” Poetry is the need to express what’s locked up inside, and for the prisoner, the bars are real.
Sending a poem into the blogosphere is, however, a relatively new way for prisoners to find their voice. Boston University’s Robert Pinsky, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, says in an interview on Big Think that prisoners serving a life sentence often write the best poetry since they have a lot of time to reflect and read. While many poems by prisoners wouldn’t make it past your high school English teacher, some talented jailed New England poets are emerging online.
The Massachusetts Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild publishes poetry once a month from those first published in its Mass Dissent magazine. The power of poetry is what helped Douglas Weed, incarcerated at MCI Norfolk, to dig deep into his crime and his subsequent remorse is not unlike Raskolnikov’s soul searching in Crime and Punishment. Here is Weed’s Ode to a Prison Prophet from October 2012:
Five thousand days akimbo toward his end
he mourns the vacant life he’s lost.
The fee he pays for mortal sin cannot pretend
to cancel debts or fray the cost.
As he intends a prayer with offerings
to gods he hardly knows,
He hopes and dreams of fancy things
like freedom, silence, clothes.
He nods his head against the wall –
a pious man he wants to be,
to save his life, to save his soul,
he prays for all to see –
for all the world to see!
He truly thinks his brave bold show
is good enough to let him go
Though God, in mercy, seems his heart-felt act,
it fails to mend the deed in love or fact.
Other Massachusetts lifers publish their poetry online at betweenthebars.org, co-founded by MIT’s Charlie DeTar and Benjamin Mako Hill. Tim Muise says on his profile that after drugs and a manslaughter sentence sent him to MCI Shirley, he eventually had an epiphany: for all those he has hurt, “he must balance the scales with good works.” Among his posts are many poems about justice and longing for redemption. Here is a section of The Rationale, posted in November 2012:
How so you rationalize keeping a man in a cage?
Do you spin danger to the public as the war you must wage?
Is all hope lost if you have committed a violent crime?
Will only retributive punishment work to shine the public dime?
Turnkeys and guards and wardens so dark
Will sell you a bill whose items are stark.
No one can change, redemption is for fools!
Such rhetoric and hyperbole are their most effective tools.
From deep in your heart you know men can redeem
this knowledge can be blocked or remain well unseen….
Muise has received numerous responses to his writing and to a couplet that succinctly and vividly recreates prison. He titles this poem simply, “Prison Couplet”:
The cell door slams shut
My heart skips a beat.
Pinsky, the BU professor, says that what moved him most about prison poetry when he taught at Norfolk Prison were the young poets, the ones who were not yet adept with language but yearned to rhyme and tell their truths. Wendy Medley, incarcerated at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, Maine, is one such poet who writes with a young heart on the Political Prisoner Blog. An excerpt from “Moving Ahead:”
From time to time I like to rewind my mind to try and find that spot,
the very instant, that I chose to speed through life so blind lost loves,
trashed cars, and all of those slapped faces. Make it easy for me
to remember the times and places of my disgraces….
Publishing poetry in blog form can help those who’ve committed crimes find remorse. R. Dwayne Betts, who became a poet in prison before he was awarded a fellowship to Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Studies, married, had children, and wrote two books, still teaches lessons he learned behind bars. Of those many lessons, he reminds himself to write like a blues musician by “creating a howl from the belly.” It is this howl that prisoners know all too well.