The Prisoner Poet...the Story of James Lewisohn
Knox County — April is Poetry Month so I thought I’d bring you a story about a poet you may not know or remember who lived among us in Maine for a time. This story was originally written in 1979 for my graduate Journalism class at Fairfield University in Connecticut. Here is an edited version of that story. I will bring you an update at a later date as well as a discussion of some of his poetry.
It’s not popular these days to believe something good can happen behind bars. One pictures hardened criminals and desperate men who kill at the least provocation…unable or unwilling to change even after they have been imprisoned.
At this writing, 509 people sit on death rows across the country. They are forgotten men and women. We hear of them only at their time of execution, when the media makes an event of last-ditch efforts to save them.
But one man will not be forgotten. He doesn’t sit on a death row. He’s a “lifer.” If Maine had a death penalty, he could be dead by now.
But he’s alive--in more ways than one.
James Lewisohn is a convicted murderer serving a life sentence at Maine State Prison, Thomaston, for the death of his wife in 1974.
Since his incarceration, he has become a nationally-known poet; a counselor and spiritual guide for his fellow inmates; taught high school and college courses; and been a leader in prison humanitarian causes.
These activities have made him subject to controversy many times during his five years at the prison.
Recently support has been mounting for his commutation. The same media that condemned him in 1974 now supports him.
A 1974 headline reads, “Poet-Professor Slays Wife.” (He was an associate professor of English at the University of Maine branch in Gorham before the trial). A recent headline reads, “Free Lewisohn Say Prison Officers.”
A poll of viewers at WGAN TV, Channel 13, in Portland, where the trial took place, revealed 1,228 in favor and 235 against commuting his sentence.
Fr. Daniel Berrigan, long a champion of humanitarian causes, who was jailed for anti-Vietnam War activities, has sent Governor Joseph E. Brennan a letter in support of the commutation.
This writer had an opportunity to talk with Lewisohn recently. Our hour-long conversation completely changed my image of what a prisoner is or what he can be.
The following story and account of that day’s conversation isn’t meant to prove his guilt or innocence. I will leave that decision to the reader.
The intent is to paint a picture of a man who has risen above his own pain and self-condemnation to dedicate the rest of his life to helping others.
Lewisohn, or Jimmy to his friends, is currently incarcerated at the Minimum Security Unit of the prison in nearby Warren. He has been there since 1978.
The unit serves as a pre-release center and usually only short-term prisoners or those soon to be released are sent there. The men are trained in the woodworking or machine-shop trade. They must be minimum security risks.
The center, used as a prison farm until 1969, has no gates or fences. No guards are visible outside the buildings. Many men have simply walked away. Hardly the place you would picture as holding a convicted murderer.
Jimmy is the only “lifer” allowed to spend his prison time here.
My brother, Harlan, works at the prison and helped me make contact with Jimmy. He accompanied me to the guard station at the Minimum Security Unit where he introduced me to Jimmy. Jimmy checks me in at the guard station. I ask to use my tape recorder and camera.
“O.K.—if Jimmy doesn’t mind,” a guard says. (I notice that even the guards call him Jimmy.)
We walk to a long grey building a short distance away. Jimmy has a small classroom here where he teaches courses to the inmates and writes his poetry.
Hammers, saws, and machinery interrupt our conversation at times, but it doesn’t seem to bother him.
“I have gathered some material for you to have that will give you everything you need to know.”
He hands me a fistful of books and another fistful of written material. As we talk, he hands me more information. He reminds me of a college professor who is always handing out course materials for his students’ use.
Throughout our discussion, he downplays the positive things he has done in prison, referring me instead to the information pile and saying, “I am only a vehicle of God’s will.”
The books he gives me are poetry. Two are his, Roslyn and Lead Us Forth From Prison. He holds up a notebook. It is his third book, A Morning Offering in manuscript form. Except for parts of Roslyn, all were written in prison.
The other three books, which he edited, are the result of poetry workshops he has conducted with prisoners at Thomaston, Maine State Prison.
The dedication in Roslyn, opposite a picture of his wife, reads in part, “These poems, many of them written in the last two years of Roslyn’s life, are my testament to her and for her…I leave them as a legacy to my four children and all our friends who know how much we loved each other.”
James and Roslyn were married 19 years. The children (the oldest was 14 at the time of the trial) were adopted by a family in Connecticut, with his permission. They kept the Lewisohn name.
Jimmy speaks of Roslyn in the present tense as often as he does in the past tense.
We speak first of his childhood. Was it good? Was it bad?
“It was catastrophic,” he says.
Born in France in 1933, he was the son of opera star Thelma Spear and expatriate and novelist, Ludwig Lewisohn. They came to the United States when Jimmy was six months old.
His parents didn’t get along too well, so Jimmy became a product of the streets of New York City, reform school, and foster homes.
Yet he’s thankful for his background.
“It has made it possible to survive in prison.” He adds, “As a Christian, I say thank-you, Father, and bless you, Lord, our sufferings are given to us to make us better people.”
Jimmy is a Catholic, converting from Judaism while in prison. As a young man, he received a master’s degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City.
Religion permeates our conversation, as it does his poetry. It’s not a fanatical belief but rather a firm belief in God’s will on Earth for James Lewisohn.
As he says in the introduction to Lead Us Forth From Prison, “I go to mass each day as though it was my last day on this Earth, and I leave the mass loving God for thinking it matters at all that I should survive yet another day.”
Jimmy has a great zest for life. And a love of people. Many have visited and corresponded with him while he’s been in prison.
He reads me a letter from one friend, Father Berrigan. It is a copy of a commutation letter sent to the governor, “I never met a more luminous spirit,” he says of Jimmy.
Jimmy’s voice catches, “He’s my spiritual father.”
The conversation regarding Roslyn, his work, his plans for the future
Jimmy talks about the “tragedy” of his wife’s death in capsulated form, as though reluctant to tell the story yet another time. The fifth anniversary of Roslyn’s death is only 11 days ago as we speak.
As we talk, he mentions the tranquilizers he was taking to help with his drinking problem. He also speaks of the hand gun he bought in 1973 because “I was experiencing paranoia.”
Then one night, after a party, she was dead. He shrugs his shoulders in an obvious disbelief that that night when his wife died actually happened.
He touches my shoulder where the bullet hit and ricocheted into her heart.
Then, he says, “In shock, disbelief, self-condemnation, I turned the gun on myself.”
“Where did you shoot yourself?” I ask. “Why didn’t you die?”
He pulls his shirt up and shows me the hole in his stomach.
“It was the design of God,” he says. “We are all somehow crazy instruments of each other’s life and death, because I certainly never intended to hurt my wife. I loved her.”
The trial lasted a brief eight weeks. Then he became number 13840.
In his poem of that name, “13840”, he says:
“The iron bars shuttle—rolling first
Then slam impregnable. All familiar
I have become a celebrant of tombs…”
But Jimmy doesn’t dwell in self-pity. His introductory line to “Prison Motto” reads:
“Don’t serve time; let time serve you.”
“If I can keep busy,” he says, “I can deal with my own anguish.”
One of his projects was the poetry workshop, begun in 1977. Inmates on good behavior could attend and receive college credit, if they wished. A National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship of $7,500 was awarded to establish the workshop.
The workshop and Jimmy fast became the subject of political controversy and outrage because of the money.
Then Governor James B. Longley “blew his top,” Jimmy says. “It ruined the image of what a prisoner is supposed to be.”
This same governor had told Jimmy earlier he kept Roslyn by his bedside and read it often.
But Jimmy continued his work in prison. Some of his accomplishments: participating in a TV story on the workshop sponsored by the Newsweek Broadcasting Service; a radio interview for WSCH in Portland, Maine, on capital punishment; representing inmates before the Maine legislature on conjugal visits and health matters in prison; being a literacy volunteer; and teaching catechism. Jimmy has also been granted furloughs to lead workshops at other places like high schools.
His plans for the future if his sentence is commuted?
If the church rejects him for mission work or teaching, “I would like to work where the pay is low…where I could go and work and serve as a Christian…I would work not as a preacher, or teacher, but as a person.”
Before we leave the classroom, Jimmy goes over to his file cabinet, secures an iron bar running the length of the unit, and locks the padlock at the top.
In a place of bars and locks, James Lewisohn, convicted murderer, has his own bar and lock.
A few weeks after the interview, Jimmy’s commutation was denied. Governor Brennan is quoted as saying the crime was too great to merit commutation. Lewisohn plans to continue his work in prison. He’s due for parole in 1982. A spokesman in the classifications department of the prison expects the parole to be granted.
See updates on what happened later in the next blog post on James Lewisohn, Prisoner Poet.
Thanks for listening.
A Note: This article was being considered by Quest Magazine in 1979, but was considered to be too controversial. Shortly after my interview, Parade Magazine interviewed Jimmy. They published an article by Gail Jennes on August 20, 1979. The pictures of Roslyn and Jimmy here (in the blog space only) are from that article. They were shot by photographer, Steve Hansen. The film I mentioned in the story I never had developed for some reason. The film cassette and the aforementioned recorded tape have both been long lost among my belongings as I have moved from place to place. I do have some of the transcript from the tapes.