Posts Tagged ‘poetry in prison’

I’m always amazed at the popularity of poetry in prison. I love poetry and I admire those who write it, but I know I’m not a poet. I bring in poets to teach my class.

One of the poets saw things I had never noticed. This was in Wisconsin, a maximum security prison built in 1854. It had high stone walls.

Harvey Taylor wore his hair long and played a guitar. In the summer he operated a crane on the docks in Milwaukee. When the Great Lakes froze in winter, he spent his time writing poetry. Here is what he saw in the prison yard:

 Tree Tops


There’s no shortage of sunlight

In the hot prison yard.

Shade is another story. . .

just outside the high walls,

beyond the guard-towers,Waupun Prison

upper branches sway, and

leaves dance with the wind,

as, a mere bird-swoop away

from that green realm,

down inside the compound,

human beings somehow survive

season after season

with only the memory of

a miracle so commontree

it’s usually unappreciated:

seeing a tree rise out of the ground.

Imagine a world in which,

you never see anyone’s feet,

legs, torso, arms, face –

only fingertips,

and a few wisps of hair.



never looking

a tree in the eye.


Harvey TaylorAlong the Shore, by Harvey Taylor, page 17

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Poetry in Prison

Posted: March 31, 2012 by Ed Griffin in Prison
Tags: , , , , ,

poetryWhen I first went to teach in prison, I was surprised by the guys’ interest in poetry. They wrote poems and they wanted me to comment. When they discovered that I had only a surface knowledge of poetry, they asked me to bring in real poets to help them, which I did.

Why? Why the interest in poetry? Only once or twice a year am I moved to poetry, when something hits me hard. I wanted them to write about prison reform and they wrote poetry.

Here’s a poem by a man who attended my class faithfully. He organized a weekly Poetry Night and put the notice on the bulletin board. Some in the public might think he’d be beat up or worse for such a notice. In fact he attracted a core of men who met with him every week in a dirty, little office, and they wrote poetry.


The External Gatekeeper


Until he got to minimum Joshua wore an external conscience;

loud and insistent, a full metal jacket

the Man would call the shots

If he knew what was good for him Joshua would take instruction.

The uniforms would decide when he ate, when he slept…

they’d tell him when to report to work and what ailed him…

in a cyclical way. The days kept coming like a revolving door…

Slave wages. Jump through hoops. Pray to your maker for more.

Then one day the walls were no more. There were trees, birds,

green grass, Escorted Absences lay in store.

Now out of himself he must fashion a clockwatcher bore

To keep track of the free movement hours, no lock on the door

A strange world to a caged bird, mythical lore

The cage just got bigger, would someday be no moreJail Writer

for Josh, no longer a sapling, had caged rage at his core.


Why? Why is poetry so popular in prison?


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