What does poetry have to do with crime?
So what does poetry have to do with crime?
Poets do not ask that question.
People for whom poetry is a vital part of their reading life do not ask that question.
They do not need to. One cannot separate the medium’s affinity for what Czeslaw Milosz called “luminous things” from its need to examine the darker side of nature, society and the self. American poets have long dealt with the consequences of criminal acts. For a mere handful of examples, track down Claude McKay’s “The Lynching” (1920), Robert Hayden’s “Night, Death, Mississippi” (1966), C.K. Williams’ “Hood” (1969), Ai’s “Child Beater” (1973) or Amy Uyematsu’s “Ten Million Flames of Los Angeles” (1998). With his 1968 poem “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane,” Etheridge Knight accomplished in just six stanzas something that took Ken Kesey an entire novel.
Weldon Kees’ “Crime Club” (1947) screamed “that nothing can be solved.” So why do we write crime fiction, let alone crime poetry? One may as well ask why we write—or read—anything at all. We do it in an attempt to understand. We do it to find some kind of meaning in events that all too often leave victims, perpetrators and everyone around them damaged or destroyed.
The poems in this volume of The Lineup carry that tradition forward. In the following pages, you will find prison guards, losers heading for the final fall, burned out detectives, victims of sexual abuse, victims of random violence, shoplifters, rubberneckers and people who slide into crime as their only remaining means of survival. Here you will find proof beyond any reasonable doubt of poetry’s relevance to modern life.
Patrick Shawn Bagley