Last week, Paul Muldoon, Pulitzer Prize and T.S. Elliot Prize winning poet and poetry editor of the New Yorker, came to visit the weekly class I teach at a prison here in New Jersey.
The classroom is in the basement of the prison. Bright primary-colored squares on the floor tiles, and pale blue walls strive for a cheerful atmosphere, but the bars on the windows and the presence of large armed men just down the hall make it clear where we are. Now and again the PA systems squawks out orders for inmates to report to this place or that, calling the men to class, to work, to the administrator’s office…
Paul, a wonderfully rumpled sort of man, with wild silvery hair flying every which way, wears a tweed jacket, shirt, and gray flannels. He sits on a gray plastic chair in the middle of the room, with the inmates facing him in a double half-circle. He looks a little exposed, with his belly hanging over his belt a bit. The men dwarf the school-room chair/desks at which they sit. They all wear the same khaki scrubs and work boots.
I’ve been preparing them for this visit for weeks, brought them Paul’s poetry and his bio. I’m not sure they entirely believed he’d really show up, being quite convinced, for the most part, that very few people on the outside think of them at all, let alone important people who are not getting paid for their visit.
M., says, “So, you written like a whole book of poems?”
I., sitting next to him, guffaws hugely, and slaps the poems and biographical information I’d given the men. “One book? He wrote a whole bunch of books! Don’t you read this shit?”
“Well,” says Paul. “I try to write poems. I think people who write actually have more trouble with words than other people. That’s why we struggle over them so much. But I do try.”
I tell the men Paul is also a musician and was in a recording studio last night. O. asks Paul what kind of music?
“Well, I will tell you I play very poorly,” says Paul. “just a bit of rudimentary rhythm guitar, but I like to write lyrics, and I try to write them.”
I doubt the men know Paul has not only written produced librettos, but has written songs recorded by The Handsome Family, Warren Zevon and Bruce Springsteen.
A., a small talkative student, says he’s brought a poem. One he wrote for a class on the holocaust. Paul asks A. to read it. He’s written it from the point of view of a Jewish concentration camp inmate. It’s not a perfect poem, but there are some lines of great power.
“That’s what poetry can do,” Paul says. “It can put us in the place of someone entirely unlike ourselves. It opens up worlds. Well done!”
Paul talks about poetry. O. mentions he began to write something this week but gave it up, threw it away, because it didn’t go anywhere.
“Have you considered,” asked Paul, “perhaps not trying to make the work go anywhere? Have you tried seeing where it might take you? Sometimes we can be out of control, discovering not what we want to say, but what the words might want to say through us.”
To a room full of young men who have very little control, and therefore try to control everything possible, this is an unsettling concept. Paul talks about a poem he’s trying to write at the moment, about two seemingly dissimilar things. He says he senses a connection between them, and he is writing to find out what that might be.
Paul’s gentle humor and deep humility win the men over in no time at all. He wants them to try an exercise in being out of control. Desks creak and rattle. The men shuffle their feet and their papers and for a moment they don’t make eye contact. Paul hands a sheet of paper to each man. On the top of each is a line of poetry, and numbered spaces beneath. The men are to write just one line of poetry, responding to the line in front of them, then to fold over the line they’ve read, leaving just the line they’ve written visible, and pass the page along to the next man. This causes a moment of panic. Everyone’s asking questions at once. They don’t understand. What did he mean? Do they hide the line they write? Do they have to write lines on all the pages? Different lines? Different poems?
It is important to them they do this properly. Doing things improperly has consequences in this place. Paul goes over it again, reassures them it will all be well in the end, that something wonderful might happen. Just go ahead. Write one line of poetry. Let the line you read sink into you.
“Think, but not too much,” he says. “Think, and then don’t think. Think. Don’t think.”
The men begin to write. Some are quicker than others, and T. soon has a pile of pages in front of him. He’s struggling. He’s a very smart young man, and of all the men has, perhaps, the most self-containment, I think. Being in control is crucial to him. He looks at the pile with something like anger. “I’m not a poet,” he says.
“That’s fine,” says Paul. “You needn’t be. Just respond. That’s all you’re doing, and it’s a great thing.”
T. realizes he’s holding up the process. The people behind him are waiting. He becomes increasingly self-conscious. Paul chatters on about words, and poems, about Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg and the beauty of red wheelbarrows, glazed with rainwater, next to white chickens. T. finishes a line, and then another, and passes them along. Paul talks about the marvel of ordinary things, and then says, “I’m talking a lot here, but I wonder if you wouldn’t like me to just be quiet and let you concentrate on the work. Yes, I’ll do that. I’ll stop talking and you can just be with the work, just be with it. Just be.” A slight pause. “Because that’s the trick, really. Writing is a bit like being a prize fighter. You have to be in shape for it. You have get in the ring when the bell sounds.” The men laugh as Paul interrupts himself several more times. If he isn’t doing it on purpose, bless him. If he is, bless him.
And then, everyone is done. Everyone has an piece of paper in front of him, folded up like an accordion.
“Shall we read them?” says Paul. The men look a little nervous. “Why don’t you begin…”
I. begins, his voice hesitant at first, but then strengthening when it becomes clear something has happened with this poem. The first line is, “Two deer stepped out of the woods.” Several students register surprise at one line or another, at how good they are. And then the next student reads. His poem, too, begins, “Two deer stepped out of the woods,” but of course this poem is different than the first, because each man has responded only to the line he saw, and no one knew, until now, they all began in the same place.
What also becomes clear, by the four or fifth poem, is the poems are powerful, muscular, with surprising twists, in every case, about five lines in. Something occurs, a path opens up and emotion spills onto the page: longing, fear, hope, sorrow, remorse… Certain themes recur, braid together, combine. The men are abuzz.
“Man, how did that shit happen?”
They laugh and look at once great humbled, and immensely proud.
“Power of the word! That’s what I do; I’m the Black Bard!” says J.
“Uncanny,” young S., says, “it’s uncanny, man. Uncanny.”
“That’s some mysterious stuff.”
Ah, yes, it is. And by allowing themselves to trust this stranger in their midst, and their own hearts and minds, and by paying attention to what was directly in front of them, they entered into relationship with something greater than themselves.
O. looks at Paul and says, “You are really humble, man.”
They want the poems copied and one of the other teachers who sat in on the lesson promises she’ll make copies for me to give the students next week. And so the class ends, and I must rush Paul back to town. As we’re leaving, one of the students stops me and says, “I don’t know how you do it, Miss Lauren, but I never been part of anything like this before.” His smile is huge. “Amazing. Just amazing.”
“I didn’t do anything; it was you.”
“And something more,” he says.
“Yes. And something more.”