Segments in this Video

Introduction: To Prisoners (02:06)


Former prisoners allude to harrowing experiences behind bars. Film participants recite a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks.

Power of Poetry in Prison (02:08)

Elisa New interviews Senator John McCain about the role poetry played in raising the spirits of POWs at the Hanoi Hilton. New recalls Brooks’ 1950 Pulitzer Prize win and her work with prisoners.

Opening Lines Analysis (02:33)

Poets Li-Young Lee and Reginald Dwayne Betts share their thoughts on “To Prisoners.” McCain and former prisoners Jarrett Adams and Alan Newton describe the grueling conditions of captivity.

"Wolves and Coyotes of Particular Silences" (01:48)

Participants discuss the line from "To Prisoners." Marty Tankleff, who was exonerated after 17 years in prison, likens the metaphor to “officers and inmates preying on each other.” Others relate the line to solitary confinement.

"Where it is Dry ... In the Chalk and Choke" (02:29)

Anna DeveareSmith, Betts, Tankleff and others discuss the line in "To Prisoners." They relate the symbolism to a range of bleak prison circumstances.

"Cultivation of Strength to Heal and Advance" (01:48)

Lee and others analyze the line in "To Prisoners." McCain recites lines from a poem he memorized while in captivity and recalls communicating to a fellow prisoner of war in code.

"... Blows You Are Going to Get" (02:06)

Lee and Smith analyze the line in "To Prisoners." The lines are about resisting the impulse to commit violence. McCain recalls the beatings he received in Vietnam and the traits he admired in fellow prisoners.

"I Call You ..." (04:03)

New considers the themes, scope, and structure of “To Prisoners.” The most important of Brooks’ formal decisions is her arrangement of the three calls. Smith and Newton relate this to the call and response tradition of the black church; McCain describes prisoner support.

Metaphorical Prisons (01:17)

Betts describes the challenges of teaching "To Prisoners" to middle school students. The poem speaks to larger pieces of the human condition. Smith believes it is about life, while Adams relates the poem to the toll of incarceration on families.

Uplifting Message (03:54)

New discusses Brooks writing “To Prisoners” during the final years of South African apartheid; Nelson Mandela drew attention to the plight of the unjustly incarcerated. Smith, Betts, and others discuss Brooks’ call to “heal and enhance,” interpreting the end of the poem as hopeful.

Credits: To Prisoners (00:44)

Credits: To Prisoners

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To Prisoners

Part of the Series : Poetry in America
3-Year Streaming Price: $129.95



Harvard University professor Elisa New uses the Gwendolyn Brooks poem To Prisoners to examine the plight of unjustly incarcerated prisoners; featuring Anna Deveare Smith, John McCain, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Li-Young Lee, and Innocence Project Exonerees.

Length: 26 minutes

Item#: BVL168675

Copyright date: ©2017

Closed Captioned

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