Prison Verse, by Royall Douglass
This book is a short one, but it is a moving and eloquent example of the sort of literature that can come from inauspicious circumstances, as the author wrote these poems while he was a prisoner in San Quentin with the number 19173. This book was published in 1911, and it shows the author as a reflective and rather gloomy soul. It would be a kind thing to try to encourage the author, but over and over again his mind turns to the passing of the hours of the night, and to the memory or imagination of better times and the gloomy thoughts of approaching death. This is the sort of book where you want to root for the author and hope for parole but where you are concerned that these poems were printed after the poet died in prison. In trying to look up some information about the author I could not find anything except for this book, which is a great shame as this is an author whose story might be compelling. How did he end up in prison? What was his background? All of this is obscure to us as the reader and we are left only with the poems that he wrote and no other context except that they came from prison.
This book is a short one at less than 40 pages, but it packs a large punch despite its small size. Beginning with a small foreword from someone who had spent time in jail with the author, the book then contains a series of poems that tend to be pretty melancholy when taken as a whole. The author talks about the stain of sin and crime, the problem that people face in getting a true fresh start after being released from prison, the longing for freedom on the open road. The author writes a few sonnets, one about the misery of a prison Christmas, and a whole series of sonnets about the hours of the night and what goes on in the mind of a sleepless prisoner. There are poems about numbered graves, the garden of death, and the dreams that people have that give them hope and encouragement in the face of the despair of imprisonment. The author writes poems relating to the night, showing a fondness for Poe, and there is a death watch here of moving detail about the last night of a death row inmate. Other poems linger on past loves, tombs, absence, and the land of dreams. Together they make an impressive body of work that is well worth reading.