November 29, 2004
Poetry Frees Minds Behind Bars
My home state, Delaware, has a post-election tradition called Return
Day, when winners and losers parade together in a show of good will.
Sure, some smiles look a little tight and the parade, admittedly,
is even smaller than the state, but the ritual is a reminder that
administrations come and go, while much of the country’s truest
work continues in places far removed from the great halls of power.
Places like the MCI Framingham women’s prison, where Elizabeth
Lund teaches poetry.
“I was attracted to the idea of writing as a transformative
experience,” says Lund, who covers and reviews poetry for
the Christian Science Monitor. She has been a finalist for the Brittingham
Prize, the BOA First Book Award, and has read at the Dodge Poetry
Festival. “Poetry has a profound effect on a person’s
life and on the people around them. I think there’s something
in people that responds to poetry. Poetry teaches you something
about yourself that you didn’t know before. It gives you back
parts of yourself that you didn’t know were there.”
For the women Lund teaches, many with only a junior high school
education, studying poetry is indeed transformative. Reading the
work of poets like Rita Dove and Gwendolyn Brooks helps them articulate
what they know. Learning to write their own poetry gives them a
way to find their voices as they work toward claiming a better place
in the world. Lund, who has been teaching at MCI Framingham for
10 years, prefers to talk more about her own satisfaction in the
work than the gift she is offering. But in a time when personal
beliefs are tossed down like gauntlets, the simple act of one person
helping another realize her potential seems not only generous but
also like the most American of values. That the transformation comes
through art makes it even more powerful.
“Poetry has a different meaning to these women. Lund says.
“It’s not just an intellectual exercise. It makes them
think about what kind of weight their words are carrying.”
Lund describes one woman who wrote about how she used to walk around
the prison courtyard with her head down and how she poetry has changed
her. Now she walks with her head up.
“Now she’s articulate. She speaks up for herself. She’s
learning how to have a voice, on paper and then in her life.”
In describing another woman, who is mentally ill and takes strong
psychotropic medications, Lund says, “Poetry is one of the
only things that keeps her balanced. I can literally see her stepping
back from the edge when she starts talking about something she’s
“They’re not the same people after they’ve been
writing for a while. They’re more grateful, more aware. They
have more hope, more compassion. It’s an honor to be part
of that process.”
workshop Lund has taught, “Read to Me, Mommy,” women
can make tapes of themselves reading a book for their children.
For women who may have had limited parenting choices, it is empowering
to select their books, practice reading them effectively before
a camera, and send the tapes along with the books to their children.
Lund, too, has been changed by her experiences. In choosing poems
and reviewing books of poetry for the Monitor, her criterion is
now more clearly whether or not the writer has something genuine
to say. And she feels her own poetry is “a bit grittier.”
“It may have made me more clear-eyed, and that’s a good
thing. It’s made me aware of what’s really going on.”
Lund’s work clearly does not grow out of the cynical “thousand
points of light” idea that assumes volunteers will fill the
chasm left after slashing human services funding. No, what I picture
here is a single pebble dropped into a pool, the ripples spreading
reading now: Elizabeth Lund is reading "Delights & Shadows,"
by Ted Kooser, the new U.S. poet laureate. "He does such a
lovely job of illuminating ordinary moments, things other writers
miss. I am reading Michael Holley's best-selling book, Patriot Reign.
Although Globe readers know Holley as a sportswriter, I know him
also as an accomplished poet.
What are you reading? Write to email@example.com.
Past columns are at ellensteinbaum.com.