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This item is taken from PN Review 221, Volume 41 Number 3, January - February 2015.

There was a time when Tom Pickard was specifically banned from reading his poems to inmates in English prisons. His language was too demotic, his themes too anarchic. ‘You’re more likely to find Semtex than a poetry book in prison these days,’ he said in 1994. Twenty years on, his quip has assumed the weight of prophecy. Not only Tom Pickard’s voice is forbidden in HMPs Strangeways, Winchester, Holloway, Wormwood Scrubs and Guys Marsh: it’s books themselves, his books and everyone else’s. Gone are the days when author and prison governor, author and prison guard, could exchange words in print or in person like winda warriors. Lock down. Dialogue over. Prisoners and books don’t mix. Reading’s treacherous, worse than brew and burn, worse than bash and knock out and nosh. Offenders who are undergoing correction and adjustment, riding their bang for a two or a four in order to be thrown back, all fixed, into the social pond, should be kept pure of books.

If prisoners are not allowed to read books, are they going to be permitted to write them? So much of our great and innovative literature has been written in prisons that, were prisoners banned from writing, our bookshelves might soon be impoverished. Consider, too, the fate of the inmates with real talent and the need to write: what will happen to them? Is some would-be Jeffrey Archer, Aphra Behn, Boethius, Bonhoeffer, Bunyan, Cervantes, Cleland, cummings, Defoe, Dostoyevsky, Fox, Genet, Gorbanevskaya, Gramsci, Levi, London, Malory, Mandelstam, Milton, Ngugi, Ralegh, Solzhenitsyn, Sterne or Wilde being corked, muffled, stifled even now, by a system which has historically facilitated, as if by design, the creation of masterpieces? Even the characters in novels grow wise and inventive in prison. Authors know that’s one of the sweet fruits of constraint.

The world’s prison system has brought more writers (not only creative writers) to maturity than any public programme, public funding, patronage and other schemes designed to help artists ‘buy time’. Why not get them to do time, instead? No distractions, no booze, no sex. The kinds of emotion, leisure and concentration that detention provides sharpen the quill, fill the pen, so long as a pen is permitted, and (at least) a long roll of toilet paper.

Little is known of Thomas Malory (c. 1416–71) except that he was a soldier and a man of learning justly (it’s said) locked up for years, entertaining himself and posterity by writing a great book about shadowy figures with virtues he certainly did not share.

John Bunyan was imprisoned at Bedford, in a gaol on the old bridge over the Ouse. He spent a third of his adult life incarcerated, and to this restraint we owe his writings. He was allowed what he called ‘a library’: his Bible. His blind daughter Mary brought him a jug of soup each evening. He made a violin out of a tin and a flute from a chair leg. Music was integral to his Puritanism, as was writing.

A modern, godless man finds other creative energies in prison. ‘[W]hile I was in jail, I was bored,’ Jean Genet recalls in PN Review 32 (1983). ‘[S]tuck between four walls – six if you like, the four walls, ceiling and floor – what else is there to do but dream? So my first books, my only books in fact were dreams, just slightly better organised than the average dream. I dreamt five books on paper […] in jail. But now that I’ve been released and released you will tell me because of my books (and you’re right), I no longer have the inspiration to write a book, so I don’t.’

He thought a moment, then added, ‘There is an important reason why I was able to say what I wanted and it’s a reason I could probably never find again – it was because I was absolutely certain that no one would ever read my books. As things turned out, they did; people read what I was thinking. But when I wrote them, in the knowledge that they’d never be read, or edited, and certainly not translated, I was faced with the extravagant freedom of being able to say exactly what I wanted; a freedom which I’ve lost now that I am free.’ Poets and novelists, philosophers and thinkers have enjoyed the benefits of such freedom; no doubt painters, composers and sculptors have done and will do likewise.

A modest proposal: that Her Majesty’s Prison Service be put in charge of administering those elements of arts policy that relate to the artists themselves or, conversely, that the Arts Council be put in charge of the Prison Service. This combination of resources and functions would ensure that writers were given ample time to write, artists to do their art, and that prisoners could be exposed to the arts and also to artists, with their civilising influence and the natural uplift they bring to any environment. A Prison Officer would become Prison and Arts Screw or Kanga, under a Senior Prison and Arts Boss. The Senior Inspector of Prisons could double as the Director of the Arts Council or vice versa. Several layers of bureaucracy and some high salaries would become redundant.

As artists finished their time inside, they would be released into the care of a literary agent, publisher, gallery owner or benign patron and the work created inside put on show. Poetry in particular would feel benefits, gaining in urgency, singing of liberty in a rapture of gratitude, and strenuously keeping its nose clean.

(A different solution will have to be found for Tom Pickard.)

This item is taken from PN Review 221, Volume 41 Number 3, January - February 2015.

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