This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, December 26, 1990

December 26, 1990 - Poetry in Prison

Plato banned poets from his ideal society (described in "The Republic"). Why? Because poets stir people up, fill their heads with dangerous dreams.

In Russia, many poets have been locked up for life. Again, we ask, Why? Because whenever they give readings, they draw enough people to fill football stadiums; later, the audiences get restless.

Here in the United States of America, it's hard to imagine anybody thinking of a poet as dangerous. The only poets most of us have ever heard about are dead -- almost the definition of an American poet.

How many people in America would risk their liberty for verse?

On the other hand, it wasn't long ago that 2 Live Crew, the putatively pornographic rap group, ALMOST got jailed. And according to some folks, rap music is the closest thing to poetry that our age can claim. (That's not particularly encouraging news either for poetry or for our age, but then, not all rap groups are as nasty as 2 Live Crew.)

For many years now, Americans have pegged poets as wimps, forever swooning in the moonlight, utterly incapable of changing a tire. By contrast, people in other countries see poets as catalysts and dissidents, potent moral and political forces.

Maybe those other countries are right. And maybe we're about to see the birth of a strange new cultural phenomenon in America: the macho poet.

I've been thinking about all this because last week, at the request of a colleague in the Colorado Library Association, I gave a reading of my poetry to the inmates of the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility in Canon City.

At times, the experience bordered on the surreal. After parking my car, I stood in the darkness before a large, heavily fortified gate. Eventually, a gruff voice challenged me from the watchtower.


"The name's LaRue!" I shouted.


"I'm here to read poetry!"

Long pause. "WHAT??!!"

I felt like an idiot, with maybe a dash of Don Quixote. But after an excruciatingly long silence, the looming metal gate clanged open, I walked in, and the gate clanged shut.

After a nervous wait in the reception area, I was escorted through several other gates and fences to the prison library. There I joined two other poets -- one from the Naropa Institute in Boulder, one, amazingly, a prison guard. Soon, twelve men filed in, all in prison garb, all with (it seemed to me) strangely burning eyes.

Then the poets read to the prisoners.

I have to say ... the inmates were among the best, most attentive, most appreciative audiences I've ever encountered. Afterward, they made keen observations about our writings. They all thanked us very politely.

One of the prisoners gave me a copy of a journal produced right there in Canon City, sponsored by the prison librarian. It was called, "Writing on the Walls." I've read it several times since then. Much of the writing stays with me.

For instance, here's an excerpt from a piece by James Dresden: "Hearts cause such pain / they should all be ripped from our chests."

Here's a haiku by Hoang Nguyen: "The wall is too high. / The human mind is higher. / The sky is highest."

When I commented on the quality of some of the work, one of the prisoners reminded me that, "Here, if you've got the inclination, you've got the time."

It makes you wonder: how much of the poetry written in America these days is written behind bars?

Or to look at it yet another way, which came first -- the criminal or the poet?

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