Poetry and Prison


Poetry Foundation’s poem of the day on August 27th was “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service.  The poem begins like this:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
  That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
  But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
   I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam ’round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way that “he’d sooner live in hell.”

The poem continues for thirteen more verses then ends with a repetition of the refrain.  It struck me as a poem I would have enjoyed reciting with friends on a long bus ride or at camp (rather like the Titanic song “Oh, they built the ship Titanic to sail the ocean blue.”)  It seemed an unusual choice for Poetry Foundation to share… until I saw the editor’s note. It stated that this had been Senator John McCain’s favorite poem. The story goes that when he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, he and another prisoner “typed” this poem back and forth to each other through the walls of their cells using a tap code.

I was fascinated by this story and decided to investigate. I  discovered an episode of Poetry in America that focused on the poem, “To Prisoners”, by Gwendolyn Brooks. It was described like this: “This episode brings together a group of interpreters who learned in prison to hear poetry’s “call.”  Learn from Senator John McCain, playwright and activist Anna Deavere Smith, poets Reginald Dwayne Betts and Li-Young Lee, and four exonerated prisoners about poetry’s special resonance for those behind bars.” I clicked on it to check it out and was drawn in for the full 25 minute episode. It’s a fascinating look at the poem and how different people interpret it.

To Prisoners
I call for you cultivation of strength in the dark.
Dark gardening
in the vertigo cold.
in the hot paralysis.
Under the wolves and coyotes of particular silences.
Where it is dry.
Where it is dry.
I call for you
cultivation of victory Over
long blows that you want to give and blows you are going to get.click here to read the rest of the poem.

Watching the video, I learned more about the story of the poem tapping that first sent me on my internet journey. What I discovered was that Bill Lawrence, who occupied a cell next to John McCain, actually taught John McCain that poem while they were in prison. (Tune in at 11:40 in the video if you want to hear McCain recite part of this poem and tell the story.) McCain explained that Bill would type a few lines to him and then he would tap them back. Each time McCain would add the lines to what he’d already learned, accumulating the poem. It gave them both something to think about. Learning this poem and tapping it back and forth was an important part of the communication that was so vital in helping McCain and others survive torture and solitary confinement.Learning about McCain’s experience with poetry in prison, reading these words by Gwendolyn Brooks, and listening to the personal interpretations of others had such an impact on me. It reminded me of the power of poetry. No, remind is too weak a word–it lit a flare of awareness–a blaze of wonder– about the power of words to offer connection, to express pain, to kindle hope, to help us in our darkest times. It also reinforced for me the importance of taking time to dig into a poem, to consider each word and all its nuances and how this is the work of the poet and the reader.

The more I thought about Gwendolyn Brooks and the more I read and considered this poem, the more I thought of her as a sorceress, and her poem, an incantation. “I call for you…” Brooks carefully selected words and images to pour into her crucible and the resulting poem glows with power.  It pulses with pain and potential triumph. It speaks to those who suffer in literal prisons, yet also speaks to those who suffer from other less tangible prisons–depression, abuse, etc.

This poem and McCain’s story still move in me, generating thoughts, connections, wonderings. They say that where there are poets, and where there is poetry, you’re never alone. Now that’s powerful magic.

This week Robyn Hood Black is rounding up the old fashioned way at her blog, Life on the Deckle Edge. Stop by to experience the power of poetry!

26 thoughts on “Poetry and Prison

  1. Thought-provoking post, Molly – thank you for taking such time and care to explore these huge themes and sift and share with us. (I just watched John McCain’s mother at his casket a short while ago. A moment and a life beyond words.) Poetry’s power is magical indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. lindabaie says:

    I did know some of this, Molly, and love your extended research and sharing. My husband discovered “Sam McGee” was John McCain’s favorite poem long in the past & loved knowing that because it was my husband’s too. He had to memorize it sometime in school, then carried through in its dramatization when he did some drama things in college. Then, I appreciate Brooks’ poem, yet have often tried to imagine how prisoners do survive such trials of spirit. I do like “cultivation of victory”. The metaphor is touching, considering the work given to crops in order to have a harvest. Thanks for all!

    Liked by 1 person

    • mbhmaine says:

      That is a looong poem to memorize! John McCain did comment that as prisoners they had lots of time on their hands. It was really interesting to work through Brooks’ poem line by line with different “interpreters.” I’d forgotten all about the PBS poetry series and am now excited to watch other episodes.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Erin Mauger says:

    Interesting post. It reminded me of a podcast I listened to on NPR some time ago where this guy was sentenced to life in solitary confinement in Somalia, and the person in the adjoining cell started up a conversation with him via knocking on the walls. Sometime into his prison sentence one of the guys was allowed a book which was ‘Anna Karenina’ and he’d “read” him the story by tapping on the walls – all 800 pages! They eventually get released some years later but having that to concentrate on helped them with their sanity, as it did for McCain and Lawrence.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Diane Mayr says:

    I just heard Meghan McCain’s eulogy and she, too, spoke about “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” Thanks, Molly, for the link to others who heeded the call to poetry while imprisoned. I will wait for a quiet moment to listen.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. haitiruth says:

    WOW is all I can say. All of this is new to me. What a great motivation to get poetry into my students’ heads! Ruth, thereisnosuchthingasagodforsakentown.blogspot.com

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Tabatha says:

    That is quite a story. Thanks for sharing it, Molly. I have heard about how Mandela found strength in “Invictus” when he was in prison.
    Also, a dark humor side-note, there’s a “joke” going around Twitter about how Turkey’s prisons are full of intellectuals: In Turkey, a jailed inmate goes to the prison library to ask for a book. The librarian tells him: “We do not have the book, but we do have the author.”

    Liked by 1 person

  7. My father-in-law has been reciting “The Cremation of Sam McGee” on camping trips for many years, but I didn’t know of John McCain’s love of this poem until this week. Gwendolyn Brooks is indeed “a sorceress.” Your metaphor is exactly right. Thank you for this thoughtful, powerful post, Molly.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. margaretsmn says:

    I watched Meghan McCain’s eulogy in which she spoke of this amazing poetry exchange. Poetry saves. I also heard a conversation with Tracy Smith and Robert Haas at the National Book Festival. My passion for poetry is shared and cared for. I believe in its power to heal and to inspire and to save our souls.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Friendship is what makes life worthwhile. If a tedious job has to be done, then doing it with friends around us makes it so much lighter. Making a game of it. Making secret languages, handshakes and stories. This story reminds how much we are all the same when it matters, in the heart.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Kay Mcgriff says:

    There is so much to ponder–and I’ve already learned just from reading. Poetry is powerful, but I have not thought much about how it affects those in prisons both physical and more metaphorical. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Such a fascinating story! I appreciate you sharing your research with us, Molly. I’m still not quite sure how they communicated poems by tapping… unless they’re spelling out each word somehow? Hard to imagine. All of it is hard to imagine… and astonishing for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. cvarsalona says:

    Molly, your post is powerful. Thank you for sharing information that you culled. I did listen to Meghan McCain’s eulogy. It was so touching. The power of poetry is part of the message. I love this line from your post, “Where there are poets, and where there is poetry, you’re never alone.” Poetry is the medicine of life that helps us survive the cruelest of traumas and take part in the celebration of the soul.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I’m very familiar with this poem, “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” but didn’t know the history it had with John McCain and Bill Lawrence- what powerful strength this gave these two men. Thanks also for sharing Gwendolyn Brooks’ “To Prisoners,” and the links!


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