POETRY BEHIND BARS by Mary Patterson Thornburg

This has been copied from Mary’s Disqus blog as, for some reason, Disqus & WordPress aren’t on speaking terms…

If you enjoy her words, do hit the clicker above and pay her a visit, as she’s one of my favourite indie writers (you may recognise her name if you’ve read Dreamless Roads) and has a fascinating website to explore – and she’d be tickled pink to see you! 😀

 I have never been in prison (yet), but I have been in prison, where I took part in a poetry reading.

It may strike you as odd that a poetry reading would be held in a prison; you may even think that being required to attend a poetry reading might be a form of punishment used to make prisoners’ lives even more miserable than they already are. Let me assure you, though, that the prisoners I read poetry to were at the reading by choice and were both attentive and appreciative. One of the chief miseries of an inmate’s life is boredom, or so my friends who have been in prison have told me. Prison life is deadly routine, punctuated by occasional and relatively infrequent violence. You will find yourself doing things it had never before occurred to you to do, just to keep from being bored completely out of your skull. Things like attending poetry readings.

Things, even, like writing poetry.

The facility in which I was, happily, not incarcerated but was in long enough to read a couple of my poems, and listen to a couple of other people read theirs, was a women’s prison in the southern United States.* I was visiting a friend who lived nearby, taught English at the local college, and had started a summer poetry workshop at the prison. Most of the women who participated in the workshop had never attempted poetry before, but my friend had inspired them to try, and the results were impressive. Probably this isn’t surprising; people who are in prison have generally led interesting lives before they arrived there, lives full of emotional complexity. Poetry presents an opportunity to give expression to that complexity, and imprisonment gives you plenty of time to reflect on it. Anyway, every woman who’d joined the workshop selected one of her poems to include in a collection, which my friend published. The title of the collection was Kites – the word being a slang term for notes passed secretly among prisoners or from prisoners to someone who would deliver them to someone else on the outside. Bits of paper that could fly over cell blocks and walls.

My copy of Kites, I’m sorry to say, has long been lost, probably in one of my many moves since that summer. But I remember a few of the poems and the names of some of the poets. Actually, I remember word for word one line, in a poem entitled “Church Ladies on Visitors’ Day” (or something close to that). The poet’s first name was Ruby, and the line remains one of my favorite lines of poetry ever: “You giggling batch of pop-eyed bitches.”

I remember Ruby for something else, too. At that reading I mentioned above, I’d read what I thought was the best poem I’d written so far, which was also the first one I’d really been serious about writing, the one I felt was somehow the beginning of my enterprise as a writer. And, as I told the audience when I introduced it, I had no idea why I’d chosen the images in the poem, no idea what it was really about. After the reading, we – readers and prisoners – were folding and stacking chairs, and Ruby said she thought she knew what it meant, if I’d like to hear her idea. I told her okay, and she explained my poem to me. My jaw dropped. She was absolutely right, and I’d never have known if she hadn’t told me. Well, she said, it was like a quote she’d heard from Winston Churchill: “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?”

I’ve since read that maybe it wasn’t Churchill who said that. But, whatever… there’s a lot of truth in it whoever said it. Ruby eventually finished serving her time, was released, and she and my friend stayed in touch for quite a while. I think about her often and wonder what she’s up to these days. I wish her well.
…………….

Not every poem written by a prisoner comes out of a poetry workshop. Most, in fact, over the years and centuries, probably have not. Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur while he was imprisoned, back in the 16th century. Oscar Wilde wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol soon after his release from prison, where he served two years for “homosexual offences,” in 1897. And countless poets, some anonymous, have written verse, serious or funny, while behind bars. Some of these poems have survived in writing, no doubt, and others have lived for a while in the oral tradition, memorized and passed along by the poets’ fellow prisoners.

In the 1950s or ‘60s, my husband heard and memorized a poem, author anonymous, that a friend of his had in turn heard and memorized while he was incarcerated in an Indiana prison. I’ve done Internet searches, hoping to find that someone along the line had written the poem down and someone else had posted it. My searches have been to no avail, and while the poem probably isn’t going to challenge Le Morte d’Arthur or The Ballad of Reading Gaol for pride of place among prison poems, we’ve decided it deserves not to be forgotten. So I’ve written it down as my husband remembers it, and here it is:

The Ballad of Jimmy LaRue

Some strange, weird tales have come out of jails,
And many of them are true,
But the strangest I’ve heard was told by a bird
Who called himself Jimmy LaRue.

We shared a cell in a Midwest ‘tel.
He was doing ten days for vag,
And this boy warmed up like a homeless pup
When I gave him a tailor-made fag.

You see, he was broke, and there’s three in a smoke,
And it seemed to suit him all right.
It started him back on memory’s track.
Here’s the tale he spun that night.

“I was doing ten in a Midwest pen,
And my bunker was slated to fry.
He was one of a mob who had pulled a job,
And the law said that he must die.

“His buddy had squealed, and then appealed
For mercy for helping the state,
But they evened the score by giving him four
When he thought he’d get the gate.

“They made this squealer a potato-peeler
And put him in Cell Block Three,
And the other guy, who was slated to fry,
They put in a cell with me.

“Well, the time was set, and I’ll never forget
The night that he said goodbye.
He wanted to chat with that lousy rat.
He was just that kind of a guy.

“He wanted to shake the hand of the snake
Who had sold his life away,
But the warden said ‘Nix – I’m leery of tricks.
The Governor might give you a stay.’

“It was four o’clock in the death-house block,
And the guards were strapping him in.
A murmured prayer for the man in the chair
Asked God to forgive him his sin.

“The lights in our cell, they flickered a spell,
And he knew his buddy was dying,
That his soul was hurled to an unknown world
At the cost of a quitter’s lying.

“He let out a yell like a scream from hell.
It echoed through Cell Block Three.
‘Cut it out!’ he cried. ‘I lied! I lied!
Oh, God, it’s killing me!’

“Well, you know the rest – this rat went west.
He died as the lights came on.
And I, Jimmy LaRue, helped bury the two
In the light of the cold, bleak dawn.”

(I especially love the first two lines – an example of sly innuendo if ever there was one. I hope that if you like “The Ballad of Jimmy LaRue” you’ll pass it on. Maybe even put a tune to it and sing it.)
………………

*I was definitely the amateur in this group of poets. The other two who read were LAVERNE HANNERS, the friend I was visiting, whose Girl on a Pony is a classic memoir of the American West in the 1930’s; and LORENZO THOMAS, poet, critic, and teacher extraordinaire.

Here’s that link again if you want to see more of Mary!

4 thoughts on “POETRY BEHIND BARS by Mary Patterson Thornburg

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