Exploring Prison Poetry

Break the prison walls that hold you captive

Out of the large body of prison literature, there is a voluminous body of prison poetry written across the world in different languages of the world. As the Arabic saying goes—Poetry is born out of sufferings. A great number of poets have expressed their anger, frustration, trauma, stigma, liberation, catharsis, resistance, witness and hope with written record—called poetry. A large number of poets who have been/are incarcerated due to different political, sociological, religious and other reasons. But the question is when physically incarcerated, does it imprison their mind and imagination. And how a poet creates beauty when he/she is being denied beauty? Is there any special conditioning in a man's body that makes him/her stand against the suffering of the incarceration? And being in prison means being cut from social life and remain away from their family, friends and dears ones. So in such a psychological zone, what are the things that motivate a prion poet to say something or write something which the outside world celebrates? Neuroscience shows that man's mind is controlled by the conditions in which it lives—but the case with the prison poets the other way. These liberated minds aestheticize the dark hours of prison and enlighten with literary pieces they compose. Denied of reading and writing materials Faiz Aḥmed Faiz—celebrated modern Urdu poet when imprisoned by the govt famously wrote in solitary confinement:

What if my pen and tablet have been snatched away from me?

I have dipped my fingers into my hearts blood

So what if my lips have been sealed

I have put tongue to every chain.

While locked up many poets find the outlet of writing a way to pass the monotony of life. When a poet is imprisoned—he/she is humiliated, beaten, tortured, denied all the outside communication, and even denied identity; called by just a number…Qadi No…The greatest trouble for him/her is when denied any reading and writing material, under tight surveillance throughout the day. Under such circumstances, it becomes difficult rather impossible for anybody to think of something which optimizes the darkest hours of life—bringing charm and joy to the environment. But history and literature is testimony to the fact—out of prison/jail or house arrest a plethora of poetry has emerged adding to the already existing canon of prison literature.

A great number of poets have written from behind the iron grills and fierce long walls. Nazim Hikmet, Mahmood Darwish, Ezra Pound, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ahmed Fouad Negm Ali M Jauhar, Ahmed Faraz, E E Cumming, Richard Lovelace, Mehjoor and the list goes on and on.  Without paper and pen, a prison writer has written with charcoal on the wall, with a broken pencil, a self made ink,  on  toilet papers, polythene bags, cigarette covers, but never surrendered to any form of tyranny. Ghalib was imprisoned for six months for not paying his debts on time. He wrote a Persian poem consisting of eighty four couplets during his incarceration. Mahmood Darwish—the leading Arab poet was imprisoned several times and several of his poems were composed during captivity.

Nazim Hikmet when captivated wrote down his famous epic novel Human Landscapes: A Novel in Verse, behind the iron grills and sky laden walls of the prison, thereby establishing the fact that a man's mind is not conditioned to imprisonment. Nazim Hikmet added new dimensions to the aesthetics of prison poetry writing, unlike any other prison poet, with fingernails as he elsewhere writes addressing to his beloved; "I craved your name on watchband// with my fingernails". As the case, with slavery and imprisonment is old, so is the man's struggle to fight against this design by writing different genres of literature.

Richard Lovelace from the captivity wrote a poem To Althea, from Prison—the lines of which have become the slogan of prison literature carrying the strong determination of human spirit and power of resistance.

Stone walls do not a prison make,

Nor iron bars a cage;"

Minds innocent and quiet take

That for a hermitage

Many of the prison works  emerged from Egypt since the times of antiquity.  Modern poet Ahmed Fouad Negm, who started writing in prison and found his voice is one of the notable examples. His prison poetry was rendered into music by Sheikh Imam Issa, a blind Oud player, and it electrified the famous Egyptian Revolution of 2011. His poems are being sung in the famous Tahrir Square by millions of protesters:

The Brave men are brave

The cowards are cowards

Come the square

Together to the square

Ezra Pound was an American critic and poet who was imprisoned for treason in Italy by American troops in 1945. This is due to the hundreds of radio broadcasts he made during WWII criticizing Jews, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the United States. His The Cantos—a collection of poems written when imprisoned is a famous document of world prison literature.

Poet, playwright and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka was imprisoned by the government several times. He was put in solitary confinement—detached from all outside happening, has written a large body of writing from behind the impregnable fortress walls. He was denied writing and reading implements during his imprisonment, so resorted to memorizing the short verse until he eventually found scrapes of papers, cigarette covers to pen down—yet another example of his  fight.

Despite physically caged, prison poets have let their wings and imagination fly over the fortress like walls of jail. They have celebrated and aestheticised their narrow cells of jail, where even one could not stretch legs. For them—writing is a means of survival.

Author is a doctoral fellow at Deptt of English, University of Kashmir.

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