Prison Poems, by Daniel Berrigan
The foreword to this book is where one begins to see the signs that this book is going to go off the rails, as the author’s brother states that the author is a Christian (something nowhere in evidence throughout this entire book of poetry) and that he is interested in victims wherever they are. And it is from that point that one realizes that the author, his brother, and others who peddle a counterfeit social gospel like them have no idea what it means to be a Christian. In their blind haste to praise the supposedly oppressed peoples of the world they forget that the least of these is not only the least in the eyes of the world, but also the least in their own eyes. The author, through his nasty and hostile rhetoric, demonstrates that rather than being a martyr for justice, he deserved his fate as a prisoner and would have deserved a worse fate if the United States were like the nations he viewed as the nations of the future (the Soviet Union and China) because of their socialist governments, where he would have fared far worse. Of course, he is so blinded by his partisan hatred for businesses and the American government that he fails to see how lucky he is that he was imprisoned for his treasonous behavior here and not somewhere else.
This book is divided into several sections, and overall is a bit more than 100 pages long. Most of the poems, as one would expect, are rather untraditional and untidy in their sentiments and expressions. The author believes that political advocacy is a substitute for sublime beauty in terms of language and content. The vast majority of the poems are whining and complaining from someone who believes themselves to have been wronged but then shows through the ugliness of their abuse of other people that they deserved what they got. There are poems about insanity, gambling, death, and lots of prison scenes that the author provides. The author shows little knowledge of the Bible but is fond of the poems of Ho Chi Minh, for what it’s worth (not very much). The author reflects on work and rehabilitation and death and his thoughts about visitors and other prisoners, who he tends to view with rare compassion, seeing as he has nothing but hostile things to say about anyone involved in business or any of his prison guards. And yet they are likely far more Christian than he is, if these poems are any guide.
There are at least a few issues with these poems. Admittedly, not all of the poems included here are bad. There are times, at least occasionally, where the author is able to turn his attention from his sour and embittered spiritual state and to reflect on the beauty of creation, and he is at least able to appreciate skunks (if not necessarily for the right reasons) as well as flowers. Most of the time, though, the author views his guards with contempt, views businesses with contempt, views the government with contempt, thinks highly only of the Viet Cong and socialists and the like. Surely the author, had he been a Christian, would have been well-served to reflect upon the generosity of Spirit that Paul had towards his prison guards, showing himself able to pray for them and accepting their care and even, in Philippi, saving the life of someone who had beaten him hours before. I don’t see the author as being someone who could do that, seeing as he could not even be polite to a guard who treated him kindly. Leftist politics do not make one a Christian, and the author’s lack of concern about his own poor spiritual state makes him unfit to be so harsh in condemning others about their own state.