Poetry in prison: hope on a postcard

Sinéad Morrissey and John Challis on the enabling power of poetry

Illustration by Ceri Amphlett. ceriamphlett.co.uk

In his 1939 elegy, ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’, W.H. Auden famously remarks that poetry makes “nothing happen”. And in certain obvious respects this is true. People do not starve through lack of poems, nor can poems keep people warm, or safe, or healthy. Badly taught in some schools (as a puzzle to torment pupils), and ostensibly enjoying less and less cultural currency, poetry – our species’ oldest surviving textual art form – could easily be dismissed as a twenty-first century irrelevance.

Yet Auden goes on to defend poetry: “[I]t survives / in the valley of its making,” he asserts, as “a way of happening, a mouth.” And our work with poetry in prisons is testament to that survival, to the power inherent in poetry as a means of utterance under inherently difficult circumstances, and to the personally transformative possibilities of poetic self-expression.

Inspired by Dr Martin Luther King’s visit to Newcastle University in 1967 to accept an honorary doctorate, and by the anthology of poems published by Bloodaxe Books and the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts to honour his visit (The Mighty Stream: Poems in Celebration of Martin Luther King, 2017), we were invited to run a poetry workshop in a male maximum security prison in November 2017, and to explore, with a group of self-selecting inmates, the three themes of King’s acceptance speech: poverty, racism and war.

This initial event was so galvanising, for everyone concerned, we applied to the Newcastle Institute for Social Renewal to fund a year-long programme of poetry workshops in the same prison, resulting in an anthology of the participants’ work.

Because the enthusiasm generated by reading and writing poems together was so infectious – spilling over into life beyond the prison library (where our workshops were held) into communal spaces, other classes, and even the cell-wings themselves – the final published anthology grew to incorporate artwork as well as words, and to reflect the dynamic conversation between words and images, as different but related modes of expression, which was the hallmark of our experience together.

“We can’t get enough poetry in prison,” one of the participants confessed – a remark that surprised us at the beginning of the project, but which by the end of it made sense. After that first workshop, we heard stories of poems being read aloud between cells after lockup. By the time we returned, the men had read The Mighty Stream cover-to-cover and were eager to discuss the many poems that had moved them. Some of their favourites included Raymond Antrobus’s ‘Jamaican British’, Philip Metres’s ‘Testimony’ and Patricia Smith’s ‘How I Won the War’, a virtuosic Golden Shovel where the last word of every line recreates one of Dr King’s powerful statements, which we won’t spoil for you here – take a look at the poem online in the teaching resource in the poetryclass resource section of The Poetry Society website.

Our conversations, which ranged from the similarities between sestinas (the form par excellence for conveying claustrophobia) and prison life, to war, displacement and childhood, reminded us that these men were often victims before they found themselves imprisoned. Although they had vanished from their ordinary lives outside, they had not disappeared. “The sky is / full of my thinking,” says Major Jackson in ‘On Disappearing’ – another favourite – and the very air in that library was full of these men’s ideas, passions and words. Rather than disappearing, these men, on the page at least, arrived, declared, confessed and lived, and by the end of each session, as we slowly returned to our lives on the other side of the walls, we did so inspired as much by them as we hoped they were by us.

On the day we finished the project we held a reading in the library attended by the governors and prisoners, and the men read and sang their poems of loss and heartache, defiance and renewal to us and each other. What surprised most was not only the enthusiasm, but the intellect and the powerful creative responses that had emerged as a result of reading the poems collected in The Mighty Stream.

Rather than being burdensome, overly intellectual or obtuse, we discovered poetry to be an ideal art form with which to engage people from a wide range of cultural backgrounds, religions, ethnicities and educational levels (some of the men had not finished school, some did not speak English as a first language). Poetry functioned as a charged and enabling force, under, or even because of, very difficult external circumstances – one which proved itself rich, robust, and conducive to both ongoing creative self-expression and increased self-esteem. Three of the exercises that really connected with the group are published online on The Poetry Society website. We invite you to read the poems that inspired them and try the exercises yourself.

Sinéad Morrissey and John Challis both teach at the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts. John’s latest collection is The Black Cab (Poetry Salzburg, 2017) and Sinéad’s is On Balance (Carcanet, 2017). To view and download the Poetryclass resource of the poetry in prisons project, visit resources.poetrysociety.org.uk

This article was published in the Spring 2020 issue of Poetry News, the members’ newspaper of The Poetry Society. © The Poetry Society and authors.