It has been said that revolutions are inspired by the upper classes and fought by the poor. Yet now that the middle class is so great in number, this is no longer true. It is they–us–who will man the front lines of the growing conflict in which democracy and humanism fight for their lives against corporate oligarchy; that will mean jail for many of us.
Currently, the court dockets are filled with Occupiers and others. Bail bondsmen are working overtime and the holding cells bulge. We all know the issues. Each of us has a point at which we draw the line, a time when we can only say no to authority and, if necessary, go to jail. Plenty of good (and awful) writing has come out of prisons, some of it especially good when the inmate is a political prisoner. We may be on the cusp of a new era of such writing.
When labor organizer, Joe Hill, was imprisoned along with fellow striking workers, he blossomed with song, taking familiar melodies and creating pro-union parodies. Then, when he was framed for murder and subsequently executed, his last poem emerged. As many know, his last words were “Don’t mourn, organize,” but the final verse was,
My will is easy to decide,
for there is nothing to divide
My kin don’t need to fuss and moan,
“Moss does not cling to a rolling stone.”
My body? Oh, if I could choose
I would to ashes it reduce,
and let the merry breezes blow,
my dust to where some flowers grow.
Perhaps some fading flower then
would come to life and bloom again.
This is my last and final will,
Good luck to all of you,
Jean Genet and the Marquis de Sade wrote poetry from prison, thick with dynamic perversity, around when Ho Chi Minh was being born. The latter, a political prisoner who would go on to reunify Vietnam after decades of bitter wars, wrote poetry that were cries for freedom.
I dream I wander trapped
in webs of sorrow…
In tears I write another prison poem
And in another he celebrates a dental rite of passage….
Good-bye to a Tooth
You were, my friend, hard and unyielding;
not like the tongue, soft and stretching.
The bitter and the sweet we have shared to this day,
But now each of us must go his own way.
The aforementioned Joe Hill was an organizer for the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, or “Wobblies”. The union movement was in its infancy at the turn of the last century and the power of the state invariably was allied with the owners against the striking workers. Sound familiar? The humane concessions won in those bloody early years – laws governing how much can be wrung from a worker in return for a living wage – are gradually being stripped away, even as I write.
So, young and old alike may soon have to face the choice: allow our rights to be stripped away or take a stand and possibly be jailed because of it.
The Wobblies had a method, something called “Free Spech Rallies”. They would convene outdoors in large gatherings and one by one mount a soapbox to speak. Of course, since the authorities refused to sanction such rallies, each speaker was arrested, one by one. What was the method? Breaking the court system.
If you fill all the exiting prison cells you eventually cause the criminal justice system to collapse. Or else, your rights are returned to you and cops can go about arresting real criminals. This may be a future choice for you and me. Consequently, we’ll see what new generation of poets and writers spring forth from dark dungeons.