When I first started teaching creative writing in prison over 23 years ago, I received a shock. It was poetry. Men in prison like poetry. Perhaps it is because our prisons are so stark and – the word is not too strong – cruel. I wonder if the same is true in countries that stress rehabilitation as opposed to punishment.
In any case, poetry is big in prison. Check out prison magazines, the most famous of which is the Angolite from Louisiana State Prison. The warden there simply says that the men must just practice good journalism – and they do. The back of the Angolite is filled with poetry.
Closer to home, is Out of Bounds from William Head Prison on Vancouver Island. It also has a back section full of poetry.
Listen to Etheridge Knight, who, shortly before his release from Indiana State Prison in 1968 summed up his life very simply: “I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound and narcotics resurrected me. I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life.”
I’m not writing this to sign people up for a crusade. If anything, I want to stress the importance of poetry and especially its therapeutic value.
John F. Kennedy said it best: “When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”