“Jail Poems” is a collection of thirty-four numbered lyric strophes (irregular stanzas) that vary in length from one to fourteen lines and function together to convey a series of related though disparate images for the reader. The title of this poem not only sets the mood but also reveals the setting in which the poem is reported to have been written and serves as a recurrent theme throughout. From his perspective inside the jail, the narrator describes the various sensory and reflective perceptions of an inmate, variously turning his eye toward his surroundings, his fellow inmates, the society that put him in jail, and himself.
The first section of the poem describes the narrator’s immediate surroundings: what he sees, what he hears, and how he interprets the situations of the other occupants of the jail. The second section is more oriented toward the senses, concentrating on visual imagery at first, then moving toward the auditory. The third section takes a philosophical approach, asking “who is not in jail?” and theorizing about the degree to which human beings can “know” things that are outside their own experience. In the fourth section, the narrator speculates about the perceptions of others and questions his own motivations. Thus the poem proceeds, asking difficult questions and then answering them not from the perspective of a “universal truth” but from the unique position of one person in a particular context, the salient...
(The entire section is 547 words.)