The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Jail Poems,” like much of Bob Kaufman’s poetry, exemplifies the oral tradition associated with the Beat poets of the 1950’s and 1960’s, many of whom were influenced by the music of their era, especially jazz. Rhythmic lines such as “ Here—me—now—hear—me—now— always here somehow ” allow the reader to hear—even feel—the cadence that is present when the words are spoken aloud. Additionally, the nonuniformity of the poem’s sections mimics the irregular measures of jazz music, varying between long, drawn-out wailings and short, intense, angry bursts, all of which are held together by the commonality of the unwavering depth of the feelings that inspire them. The Beat poets were reacting against rigid stylistic conventions, eschewing not only regulated rhyme schemes and uniform meter but also formulaic stanzas and consistency of perspective and case. By rejecting the rules of their predecessors, the Beat poets created a style that was fluid and resembled spoken discourse or even thought processes. In fact, Kaufman, who preferred to deliver his poems orally, is said to have resisted their publication, preferring to recite his own poetry (and that of others) from memory whenever the opportunity presented itself.

The Beat poets rejected common formulaic constructions as well, avoiding the binary relationships that are found in other styles of poetry and rejecting simple themes such as male versus female, us versus them, and now...

(The entire section is 440 words.)