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Toward a Prison Poetics

From: College Literature
Volume 37, Number 3, Summer 2010
pp. 143-166 | 10.1353/lit.0.0131



The essay argues that prison writing bears not only a common subject but recurrent, formal traits, and that these generic traits emerge directly from prison writing's material links to the strategies of power exercised within prisons in general and to the particular conditions of each writer's incarceration. By analyzing tropic veins common to all prison texts, we discover a generically coherent body of literature as germane to discussions of justice generally as the body of law or penology. The essay offers close readings of passages from Martin Luther King, Jr's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Wole Soyinka's The Man Died, Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice, and George Jackson's Soledad Brother. Situating these texts relative to one another, the essay demonstrates how a prison poetics can excavate the material conditions of incarceration specific to each writer even at it reads the prison testament as part of a genre of resistance literature.

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