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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Everything about “Jail Poems,” from its irregular sections, each numbered and kept separate from the other, to the way that the narrator increasingly withdraws into himself, contributes to the overall theme of disfranchisement, a theme that Kaufman addresses often. The collection in which “Jail Poems” appears, Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness, begins with a poem entitled “I Have Folded My Sorrows” and proceeds to explore both loneliness and disfranchisement from a number of different angles: from the quiet, solitary isolation of an individual to the collective grief felt by a community when one of its icons passes away. Each of the poems touches a nerve as Kaufman explores grief, disillusionment, and the acute sense of betrayal felt by people whom society excludes or marginalizes. “Jail Poems” contributes to this collage by dramatizing the plight of the disfranchised through a combination of rhythm and imagery; however, because of the complexity with which Kaufman treats his subject even on a thematic level, there are no absolutes.

At random intervals throughout the poem, there are causes for hope such as the “Three long strings of light/ Braided into a ray.” Moreover, the poem itself represents an act of expression, an affirmation of self that exists against all odds. Even if, as the narrator asserts, he is writing the poem “For fear of seeing what’s outside [his] head,” he still admits a desire to eat “a wild poetic loaf of bread,” a longing that confirms that even at his worst, the narrator continues to hold on to his artistic desires. The most conspicuous meaning of the poem, however, is much less positive. The final two images are of a man, fumbling on the floor, who was once much more than he is now and a raindrop that will be flattened not by gravity but by a conspiratorial act. Together, these images convey a profound sense of regret that some people are prevented from living up to their potential not because of random happenstance but because forces conspire to limit them. It is these purposeful limitations that Kaufman rails against because, like his contemporaries, he cannot abide rules that make virtual prisoners of those held within their sway. Ultimately, “Jail Poems” is about the need to protest violations of the human spirit. As Kaufman reminds readers, these violations occur not only through physical incarceration but also through sensory deprivation and social isolation.