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!