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Poetry in the Age of Mass Incarceration: Challenging the Dichotomy of Innocence Versus Criminality

Etheridge Knight

The essay published here for Poetry Foundation is only an excerpt of the full-length work. Material that has been cut includes a description of the rise of mass incarceration, which is often described as starting in the early 1970s and continuing until present day. Also cut is an analysis about the word “innocence” and how notions of innocence have shifted since the Antebellum period. This shift in the rhetorical uses of innocence allowed for a plea to greater moral goodness outside of the court and helped to frame appeals made by poets in the age of mass incarceration. Lastly, definitions of violence were also cut. Michael Warner says, “To call something violence is to name it as a scandal wherever we find it… It is possible to turn this kind of criticism on the state largely because the modern democratic state leads us to assume a kind of transparency between the sovereign citizen who instructs the state and the national subject on whom the state acts.”[1]  Thus, the main goal of the poet in the age of mass incarceration is often to imagine a world beyond retributive violence by the state. The poet is able to name state violence as violence when it otherwise goes unseen. The poems below use several techniques to complicate the dichotomy of innocence versus criminality and reimagine or resist punitive systems: from narrating experiences in prison, to observing incarceration, to refusing police violence.


Narrating Experiences in Prison and Jail

A bulk of poetry published by incarcerated people in the age of mass incarceration can be found in anthologies specifically dedicated prison writing. Though, there are a handful of poetry collections written by currently or formerly incarcerated poets that have become well regarded within various literary canons. Some of the poets who have written these collections include Jimmy Santiago Baca, Paul Mariah, Etheridge Knight, and Reginald Dwayne Betts. It seems apt to focus on the work of Etheridge Knight (who was in prison from 1960 to 1968, just shortly before the age of mass incarceration, and whose work about prisons was published throughout start of the age of mass incarceration).  Also, focus will be brought to the work of Reginald Dwayne Betts (who was incarcerated from 1996 to 2005 and who has become one of the twenty-first century’s leading poets writing about prison). When considering the narrative poems of formerly incarcerated people, there is often a double-consciousness, of which W.E.B. Du Bois says is “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.”[2] The prison operates as a geographical location that separates the prisoner from the “free world” and creates a purgatory or non-life for the person incarcerated, through which the self is examined. The narratives in poetry by incarcerated people often examine the space between themselves and the outside world, serving as a bridge between the two populations. Narratives about incarceration, whether intentional or not, can help to draw questions to the morality of the court and challenge the court’s notion of innocence. Firstly, consider an excerpt from Etheridge Knight’s poem “The Idea of Ancestry”:

            Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black

            faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand-

            fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,

            cousins (1st & 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stare

            across the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I know

            their dark eyes, they know mine. I know their style,

            they know mine. I am all of them, they are all of me;

            they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee..[3]

 The poem operates as a bridge to the nuclear family unit in the non-incarcerated world from an incarcerated person. It exists in neither of those spaces exclusively, but was created out of those spaces, communicating the divide. What is apparent is the estrangement from generations of black kin and a desire to see the self as part of the family. Yet, there is a struggle when naming the difference between them. “They stare / across the space at me” as if looking at the narrator’s otherness and naming his incarceration. The family unit is not located in the prison cell and their “staring” is merely an illusion of the photographs, from the non-incarcerated to the incarcerated world. The speaker’s interaction with the family in those poem is merely an internal dialogue, and is not reciprocated. Here, the isolation of the prisoner becomes direly apparent. The narrator exists as a single individual, extracted from the collectivity of the family unit and contemplating the movement of time. Knight writes, “grandmothers (1 dead), grand- / fathers (both dead)” and the passing of time becomes a consideration of the poem. How long ago was the photograph taken and were the grandparents still alive before the narrator entered prison? How long has the narrator been in prison? Did he miss the funeral of his grandparents? Contemplations of space and time are present within many poems in the age of mass incarceration, as the prison controls and morphs both of these concepts for the prisoner. Space is demarcated by the boundaries of the cell or of the prison walls, which separates the interior of the prison from the outside world. Time in prison often exists as a waiting period until the life or time outside of prison.

Next, consider an excerpt from the poem “Bastards of the Reagan Era” by Reginald Dwayne Betts, which is also preoccupied with the distance between the prison and the outside world. Betts writes, “A grave: a place where men go to trouble death, / This corner, prison, purgatory holds / My breath and body, fucks with my mind until, /  Until the time becomes my coffin; we / Inherited a world wretched with crack, / A world beginning with a trek like this: / A van, the wine-dark asphalts, cuffs, the night.”[4] The poem connects the narrator to a past, not contemplating family, but contemplating the circumstances that have led to prison such as inheriting “a world wretched with crack.” The poem takes place in the midst of the Reagan years when the crack epidemic was met with hyper-policing (and addiction or drug usage was strictly criminalized). Time in prison is a “purgatory” that “fucks with my mind.” This statement is important because it moves beyond the mere indication that prison morphs time and space. This statement shows the repercussions of prison on the incarcerated person, such as struggles with mental and physical health. The distance between the outside world and prison often reflects distance from the incarcerated person to the idealized self (though this is not always the case). The idealized self, in the case of this poem, is someone who does not have such struggles with mental and physical health due to incarceration. Reginald Dwayne Betts’s first collection of poems about prison, Shahid Reads His Own Palm, was concerned with the words of Elizabeth Alexander when she wrote, “Certain kinds of black men’s stories are ever in vogue, stories that offer the easy paradigm of criminality and putative redemption.”[5] Thus, Betts wrote a poetry collection (and continues to write poems) that speak against the cliché of putative redemption and into the void, the loss of black men to the prison system.

Both Reginald Dwayne Betts and Etheridge Knight navigate time and space in prison as a void which separates the prisoner from the non-incarcerated world. This separation becomes a site of violence that affects the health of the prisoner and connects the reader to the prison via a shared site of struggle. With first-person narrative poems about incarceration, the notion of the state as innocence and punitive systems as being the sole reaction to criminality becomes questioned. What are systems that can rehabilitate and heal communities after instances of violence instead of perpetuating further harm?


Observations of Incarceration

At the Facing Race Conference in 2012, Junot Diaz said, “Because there is a desire for an imperial blackness, for a blackness where one person has the keys to what blackness means, there’s an idea that the local usage of the ‘N-word’ in a place like Central Jersey is illegitimate and therefore should defer to the imperial blackness of say Brooklyn.”[6] The logic of this conversation is pertinent to the creation and understanding of the prison poetry canon. There is not an imperial prison poetry canon that can dictate the legitimacy of certain narratives about incarceration above others. This approach, of limiting who is considered within the prison poetry canon to only incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people, neglects the impact of incarceration on family and community members who have been separated from incarcerated people and have been impacted financially or emotionally because of this separation, or people who have been impacted by incarceration in some other capacity. Thus, it seems appropriate to also discuss poems written about incarceration from poets who have not been incarcerated in prison or jail. In these writings, some poets are writing about prison history, other poets are writing about their experiences teaching in prisons and jails, and some poets are reflecting on having incarcerated family members. The works of these poets often serve as testimonies towards the notion of the state as a perpetrator of violence and not always innocent.  

Poets who have written about prison history include Layli Long Soldier and Lucie Brock-Broido. This approach of writing about prison history serves to readdress the memory of American prison history. To recall moments of prison history is to refuse the obliteration of narratives regarding state violence. As Edward Said wrote, “…culture is a way of fighting against extinction and obliteration. Culture is a form of memory against effacement.”[7] Poets who address prison history are depicting state violence as an action that is not merely occurring in the present but as an occurrence that has precedent. For example, in the poem “38” by Layli Long Soldier, the poet recalls the imprisonment of one thousand Dakota people and the legal execution of 38 Dakota people after the Sioux Uprising. This poem is necessary when considered in relation to the current imprisonment of Dakota protestors who are fighting for water and against the creation of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Long Soldier writes, “As a result—and without other options but to continue to starve—Dakota people retaliated. Dakota warriors organized, struck out and killed settlers and traders. / This revolt is called The Sioux Uprising. / Eventually, the U.S. Cavalry came to Mnisota to confront the Uprising. / Over one thousand Dakota people were sent to prison.”[8] This poem allows the reader to connect past histories of native incarceration and resistance to actions occurring in the present day.

In her poetry collection Stay, Illusion, Lucie Brock-Broido also writes about prison history. The poet writes about the death penalty and murder of Tookie Williams by the state of California, critiquing the apathetic response by upper-middle class people to the execution of Williams. Brock-Broido writes, “So enormous was Tookie’s arm / The needle couldn’t enter it, eleven minutes poking / There to find the vein, / Thirty-six to put him down. / Tookie was a big man, / The warden said, But it’s only salt that stops / the heart—you know—that simple.”[9] In both poems, the motive for writing differs. In the Layli Long Soldier poem is a personal relationship to indigeneity and the political suppression of native communities. In the Brock-Broido poem, the personal connection is less apparent and the poem seems to be moved by a feeling of great empathy for the murder of a “rehabilitated” offender. Both poems reflect on the actions of the state as unjust and they side with the incarcerated populations. This is a strategy for much of poetry that writes about prison history.

Poems about teaching or visiting incarcerated individuals can also be noted throughout the prison canon. The poetic approaches towards addressing visits to prison and jails varies. For example, Idra Novey has many poems that were written after time she spent teaching in the Bard Prison Initiative, and many of these poems are not confined to the geography of the prison itself. In her poem “House Arrest,” Novey writes, “When punishment became a picture frame, the state gave our mother / a glittering one and some picture wire so she could hover properly on / the wall. Neighbors asked if this stillness had been in her before, if we / poured our milk differently over our cereal with our mother always / fixed there and listening.”[10] This poem does not speak of the prison itself but of house arrest afterwards and the emotional disconnect between a mother and child after prison.

Meanwhile, C.D. Wright writes, almost journalistically, of poetry about her time spent visiting Louisiana prisons. Wright makes a gesture to the prisoners of French-speaking Louisiana by writing, “I tell you what she knows now, she knows / le ceil est, par-dessus le toit / She knows NOTHING AND NO ONE IS BAD FOREVER”[11] In this poem, Wright includes a line of poetry by the French, and formerly incarcerated poet, Paul Verlaine, before dismissing how criminality is attributed to whole individuals as opposed to individual actions. Wright’s aesthetic is often to capture the colloquial languages and cultures that the poem is depicting. Though the approaches towards poetry written about visiting prisons differ, there are some similarities. The poet, sometimes without a pre-existing relationship to the incarcerated individuals, must find their reason for visiting the prison and their relationship to the poem. The poet must also acknowledge that they are the outsider, the civilian, while visiting prison. The poet must find a way of connecting to the prisoners and to the poems being written out of their shared experiences. Often the poet feels a need to state their intentions or relationship to the prison in their works written about visiting incarcerated people. For example, consider the introduction to C.D. Wright’s poetry collection One Big Self: An Investigation where she writes, “Not to idealize, not to judge, not to exonerate, not to aestheticize immeasurable levels of pain. Not to demonize, not anathematize. What I wanted was to unequivocally lay out the real feel of hard time.”[12] These poetic examinations of incarceration do not serve to further criminalize prisoners, rather they are manners of looking to connect with the incarcerated world, in solidarity with the struggles of incarcerated people.

Poets who have written about having incarcerated family members include Natalie Diaz and Ocean Vuong. In her first poetry collection, When My Brother Was An Aztec, Diaz describes her brother’s heroin addiction. Diaz wrote about the incarceration of her brother, saying, “It’s not the first time. It’s not even the second… My brother is arrested again and again. And again / our dad, our Sisyphus, pushes his old blue heart up to the station.”[13] This poem shows the emotional and physical (and financial and gendered) labor that is extracted from family members who seek to support their incarcerated relatives. In the poem, the narrator does not attempt to depict her brother as innocent. Rather, the poem is centered around the weariness that the actions and imprisonment of her brother have caused on their family. In his book Night Sky With Exit Wounds, Vuong writes of his father’s imprisonment saying, “my echo trapped in ’88 / the cell’s too cold tonight & there / are things / I can say only where the monarchs / no longer come.”[14] The location of his father’s imprisonment is not indicated within the poem and can be either in the United States or Vietnam. Again, in this poem the main focus is an emotional strain between the non-incarcerated family and the imprisoned person. “There / are things I only say where…” indicates a space in the communication between father and son, the space being the distance between the incarcerated and non-incarcerated worlds. What these two poems, and many other poems written about incarcerated family members, have in common is a reconciling of the relationships with family members. Poems that speak about incarcerated family members often do not attempt to portray their family members as innocent and they do not endorse state violence either. These poems allow empathy to be had for the families of incarcerated peoples and for the broader impact of incarceration or state violence to be acknowledged.


Poems About Police Violence

Poems about police violence should be addressed within the poetry prison canon too because it is the police who serve as intermediaries between civilians and the court. The police uphold the law of the court and move the bodies of civilians from the non-incarcerated world to incarceration. In a sense, the police are living in a liminal space. In the words of Frantz Fanon, “In the colonies it is the policeman and the soldier who are the official, instituted go-betweens, the spokesman of the settler and his rule of oppression.”[15] The police are the embodiment of state surveillance and without them mass incarceration would not be possible. Most poems about police violence are motivated by a similar disturbance—witnessing or experiencing the brutalization of civilians. Poems about police violence usually condemn the violent actions of the police and the externalization of police violence as being the fault of the civilians. This is usually done by making emotional appeals. Yet, poems about police violence differ in their calls to action. Some poems, such as “Poem About Police Violence” by June Jordan, propose a hypothetical retaliation against police violence in order to shock the reader into thinking about the severity of murder. Jordan writes, “Tell me something / what you think would happen if / every time they kill a black boy / then we kill a cop.”[16] This poem is parallel with the aesthetics of agit-prop (agitative-propaganda) poetry that seeks to make the reader uncomfortable and to incite political action. Other poems, such as those within Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen, do not offer a hypothetical call to action, but rather, Rankine narrates police violence without a conclusion. Rankine writes, “In Memory of Jordan Russell Davis / In Memory of Eric Garner / In Memory of John Crawford / In Memory of Michael Brown.”[17] The speaker then continues and on the following pages says, “Because white men can’t / police their imagination / black men are dying.”[18] With each new edition of her book, Rankine adds names to the list of civilians killed by police. The additions to the memorial make the poem feel like a living artifact, oxymoronically; when the individuals are deceased, what continues to live is the violence that was enacted against them. There is no call to action in Rankine’s poem but there is commentary on police murdering civilians. Poems about police violence communicate the daily harassment of police against civilians in the “free world” and in prison. Consider the doggerel (poetry of simple rhyme) of Miss Shari Kenyon, a transgender woman of color who was affiliated with the queer political collective Vanguard, before the era of mass incarceration. Kenyon writes, “So here’s what happened / to Katy the Queen / She came on too loud on / The Market St. scene; / She blew her mind, and / the Vice’s too / ‘Cause Katy in drag is not / too cool / Now she keeps the Fuzz happy / And the Gay Tank clean.”[19] These lines describe the criminalization of transgender people and the sexual exploitation of transgender prisoners in the 1960s. By narrating various forms of police violence, whether or not a call to action is made, the state appears guilty in the new penology and the dichotomy of innocence versus criminality is challenged.


The Poetic Aesthetic of Mass Incarceration

The process of reimagining the prison as a physical and social structure is important to the aesthetic of the poetry prison canon and can be noted in two adjacent canons. The canon of twentieth-century protest literature (up to the Civil Rights Era) also necessitates a reimagining of structures and a refusal of the status quo. Zoe Trodd said, “…abolitionism was a key civil rights aesthetic. Writers knew that form could protest. It could challenge racist imagery, reassign the meanings of white supremacist symbols, and undermine narratives of the past that shaped dynamics in the present.”[20] The canon of radical black literature in America necessitates a process of reimagining, of improvisation too. Fred Moten said, “Black radical tradition constitutes its radicalism as a cutting and abundant refusal of closure. This refusal of closure is not a rejection but an ongoing and reconstructive improvisation of ensemble.”[21] The aesthetics of both American protest literature and radical black literature are vital to understanding the prison poetry canon, in its frequent quest to reimagine the physical and social structures of incarceration. These canons are important because they influenced basically all the poems that are written in the age of mass incarceration. Many poets who can be considered in these canons also overlap with the poetry prison canon in the age of mass incarceration. For example, Etheridge Knight can be analyzed within the radical black aesthetic, American protest poetry, and poetry in the age of mass incarceration. It is important to reimagine the prison system because millions of people are being separated from their families and deprived of agency over their lives by mass incarceration. In the age of mass incarceration, the poet is able to imagine liberation from the confinement of penal logic (or to make an effort at psychic survival) where state violence prevails. In prison, resources are scarce and poetry, in its prolific nature, can be one of the easiest forms of self-expression to diminish the divide between incarcerated and non-incarcerated worlds.


[1] Michael Warner, “What Like A Bullet Can Undeceive?” Public Culture 15.1 (2003), 44-45.

[2] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1903).

[3] Etheridge Knight, “The Idea of Ancestry,” Born of a Woman: New and Selected Poems (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980), 8.

[4] Reginal Dwayne Betts, “Bastards of the Reagan Era,” Bastards of the Reagan Era (New York: Four Way Books, 2015).

[5] Qtd. Elisa Gonzalez, “A Decade After Prison, A Poet Studies for the Bar Exam,” New Yorker, June 30, 2016.

[6] Junot Diaz, Personal Interview (Facing Race: A National Conference, Baltimore, Maryland, November, 2012).

[7] Edward Said, Culture and Resistance (Cambridge: South End Press, 2003), 159.

[8] Layli Long Soldier, “38,” Mud City Journal, July, 2015.

[9] Lucie Brock-Broido, “Of Tookie Williams,” Stay, Illusion (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), 17.

[10] Idra Novey, “House Arrest,” Exit, Civilian (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 25.

[11] C.D. Wright, “On the road to St. Gabriel,” One Big Self: An Investigation (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2007), xiv-20.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Natalie Diaz, “Downhill Triolets,” When My Brother Was An Aztec (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2012), 52.

[14] Ocean Vuong, “My Father Writes from Prison,” Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2016), 19.

[15] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 1963), 38.

[16] June Jordan, “Poem about Police Violence,” Passion: New Poems, 1977-1980 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1980) 34.

[17] Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014), 134-135.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Jennifer Worley, “Street Power and the Claiming of Public Space: San Francisco’s Vanguard and Pre-Stonewall Queer Radicalism,” Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, ed. Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith (Oakland: AK Press, 2011), 47.

[20] Zoe Trodd, The Civil Rights Movement and Literature of Social Protest (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 18.

[21] Fred Moten, In The Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 85.

Originally Published: September 25th, 2017

Poet and activist Christopher Soto, who also uses the name Loma, is the son of El Salvadoran immigrants. He was educated at New York University.  In his poems, Soto engages themes of intimacy, trauma, and identity. In a 2014 blog essay for VIDA, Soto writes, “At dinner she asked why I...