These are the much-quoted first lines of the final stanza of Richard Lovelace’s poem ‘To Althea, from prison.’ Richard Lovelace was one of the dashing young cavaliers of the English civil war, a metaphysical poet sent to prison for presenting a royalist petition in support of pro-royalist bishops. He used the time to compose this, his most famous poem. Written to a possibly fictional lover, the poem expresses a theme common to much of the literature composed in prison; you cannot imprison the human mind.
Despite the walls around him he can imagine his beloved and so he ends the poem with the lines-
“If I have freedom in my love
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.”
The poetry crafted by the men currently incarcerated at Sterling Correctional Facility in Colorado are writing from the same belief in the freedom of the mind, as unlocked enthusiastically by poet professor Wayne Gilbert.
In Professor Gilbert’s words:
“Poetry is powerful medicine. It nourishes resilience, heals the vulnerable, wounded heart, and encourages the exploration of new, more positive identities. One (incarcerated) poet recently told me, “I can’t continue to be the person I was, because “he” is what brought me here- so, I’m trying to re-create myself. Poetry is the way I explore the possibilities.”
Reading and writing poetry is all about making new meanings for new, more satisfying ways of moving in the world.”
Richard Lovelace would agree.
So in this amazing way, via the thread of words on paper, the power in stating LISTEN TO ME through powerful and revealing poetry and prose, is how we survive. To let loose ones unbridled self, the you under your skin, under the covers, cowering in a prison cell, we turn off the big red switch of a critical mind and ego, and we verify the meaning of our lives. Wayne Gilbert encourages and celebrates the poets’ willingness to explore and savor their own personal stories and write them down in the deepest, truest way.
When we read, we can launch into our memories and find our own story; when we write poetry, we call up our joys and sorrows and they land there on paper, like a newborn child who has sloughed off their hurt in the process of self-discovery. Poetry rocks and rules in Wayne Gilbert’s classroom. His group of poets, though controlled by restrictions and regulations, removed from society and left to stew inside those stone walls and iron bars, have in their hearts and souls found a way to fly free.