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Poster poems: Crime


A tough challenge for the year's first assignment: please file your reports here

After the glories of last year's monthly calendar series, Poster Poems is sticking with things that come in dozens for 2013. This year it's eggs, loosely speaking at least. To get us off to a substantial start, we're having hard-boiled eggs for breakfast this January. Which means, as fans of Raymond Chandler, Ed McBain and hard-boiled detective fiction in general will not be surprised to hear, the topic for this month's challenge is crime and criminality.

It's fair to say that the original "hard-boiled" poet was probably François Villon: womaniser, hard drinker, thief and killer. Villon is in most ways the absolute antithesis of the Romantic notion of the poet as a somewhat effete figure starving in a garret and suffering for their art. He's one of those writers who is frequently quoted by those who have never heard of him, thanks to the popularity of the phrase "where are the snows of yesteryear", which is Rossetti's translation of the line "Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?" from the French poet's Ballade des dames du temps jadis. Villon's outlook on life is summed up succinctly in the Ballade Des Pendus, or Song of the Hanged Men, which he wrote in prison while awaiting execution, a sentence that was never carried out.

Of course, where you have hanged men, you must have a hangman; society's licensed killer, "the killer who kills for those who wish a killing today", whose work and debatable worth is marked by Carl Sandburg in a poem called, simply, Killers. Sandburg's executioner appears to distance himself from what he does for a living by subsuming his personal responsibility into that of the five million citizen killers for whom he acts.

If Villon is the prime example of the poet as criminal, then Robert Browning must be the model poet as crime writer. The Ring and the Book, his murder novel in verse, is long but well worth reading, and you can capture much of the tone of that work from the short poem My Last Duchess, with the chilling casualness of the climactic words of the Duke: "I gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands / As if alive." No more is said as to the manner of her death; no more needs to be. This detached attitude to murder is rarely found in poetry; one other example is the story of the girl killed in her bath in TS Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes.

If Browning's crimes are, by design, dramatic, then Amiri Baraka's Incident is much more matter of fact, occupying a space somewhere between eyewitness account and police report. This is crime poetry of the 20th century and of the city streets of America. Bakara's poem is explicit and detailed; by contrast, Kenneth Patchen's The Murder of Two Men by a Young Kid Wearing Lemon-colored Gloves is an outline plan of the action and leaves the reader to fill in the details for themselves. Its careful use of space and typography reminds this reader of the chalk body outlines that are so favoured by the makers of TV crime dramas.

Browning, Bakara and Patchen all write about crime from the outside, as it were. In Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane, Etheridge Knight brings us back inside. His poem occupies the same ground as Villon's did, but seemingly filtered through the lens of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The poem serves as a salutatory reminder that prisons are communities with their own social order and their own heroes, but these are not necessarily the pseudo-glamorous gangland figures that appear in the popular press.

In Prisoners, Denise Levertov's view is that the greatest punishment those convicted of crimes face is the deprivation of the ordinary, the ability to enjoy such ordinary food as bread or apples without the taste of prison on them. Levertov's outsider sense that the prisoner retains the ability to experience joy is not shared by the prisoner-poet Richard Lovelace in his To Althea, from Prison; for Lovelace, the joy of love deprived is his greatest loss.

And so this first Poster poems challenge of 2013 is to write poems about crime and punishment. For most of us, this will not be based on personal knowledge, so the opportunity to exercise imagination will be all the greater. So let's get cracking on the first of our dozen eggs. And a belated Happy New Year to one and all.

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