Branded Man


Prison Lit

The long tradition of outlaw poets.

From the cover of Merle Haggard’s Branded Man, 1967.

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on Austin Reed’s The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict, here.

Early in the first volume of Panegyric—the bad-tempered, ironically self-deprecating eulogy he wrote for himself in the late eighties­—Guy Debord sang the praises of a kind of writer he knew he could never become. “There have always been artists and poets capable of living in violence,” he wrote. “The impatient Marlowe died, knife in hand, arguing over a tavern bill.” Five hundred years earlier, in the picture Debord goes on to imagine, the medieval poet François Villon presided over a cluster of writers who lived raggedly and riskily at the banks of the Seine. These were outlaw poets, “devotees of the dangerous life”­—starved, browbeaten figures for whom pariahdom, persecution, imprisonment and homelessness were both facts of life and the materials out of which they made their art.

Outlaw poets are what certain prison writers become when their term is up—when they’ve been let loose into a world that spurns them and whose values they reject. In some cases, the poetry they write from this position turns out bitter, sour, and defiantly indigestible, full of lines that dare their civilized, comfortable readers to tolerate rude language, unhinged imagery, and wild variations in refinement and shape. In others, it comes off as a seductive, pining lament, a plea for pardon or a performance of rueful self-blame. Some of the great outlaw poets shuffle unpredictably between these two tones. “I’d like to hold my head up and be proud of who I am,” Merle Haggard sang in 1967, less than a decade after the end of his two-year term in San Quentin: “but they won’t let my secret go untold; / I paid the debt I owed ’em, / but they’re still not satisfied; / Now I’m a branded man / out in the cold.” He could write an equally convincing song that placed the fault on precisely the opposite side: “Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied; / that leaves only me to blame ’cause Mama tried.” 

The cluster of chart-topping records Haggard made in the late sixties; the verses Villon assembled into his long poem The Testament after a short lifetime of thefts, assaults, arrests, and at least one imprisonment; the poetry Paul Verlaine wrote before, during, and after the eighteen months he served in a Belgian jail; the short collection Gregory Corso published in 1958 and dedicated “to the angels of Clinton prison, who, in my 17th year, handed me, from all the cells surrounding me, books of illumination”—the canon of outlaw poetry is as motley and diverse as the circumstances of the outlaw poets themselves. It doesn’t bear generalizations well.

It does, however, suggest the unstable mixture of defiance and shame with which these poets all left prison. They played with abasing themselves to their parents, their patrons, and the polite society of their time while at the same time proudly courting that same society’s condemnation. In some moods they wrote as if they craved the peace and quiescence of a settled life; at other points, they couldn’t help raging against the good, settled people who’d left them moldering behind bars. For the outlaw poet, there have always been particular difficulties involved in deciding how palatable a poem should be; how much it should conform to a reader’s expectations; how smooth it should go down.


A page from The Testament. Click to enlarge.

François Villon claimed to be no more than thirty when he wrote The Testament, but by then he had already, as he put it in the poem’s first lines, “drunk down all my shames.” His troubles began soon after he received the second of his two degrees from the University of Paris in 1452, where he’d come from his adoptive childhood home in the Burgundy town of Villon. François grew up in a church cloister, and the first two crimes for which he was charged were both strikingly anticlerical. In 1455, his translator Barbara Sargent-Baur relates, he was accused of “killing a priest in a brawl”; a year later, he helped steal a small fortune from the theology faculty of a Paris college. From then on he led a mostly uprooted, wandering life. The Testament was composed late in 1461, no more than a month or two after a royal pardon freed Villon from the Orleans prison in which he’d been locked up for months and periodically subjected to water torture.

Villon’s great poem was an outsized gesture of defiance; reading it, you wonder to what extent it was also meant to stand as an effective will. Most of The Testament’s 2,023 lines consist of a long roster of itemized bequests. Of these, the greater part is prankish and mischievously nose-thumbing. (“Item, since the Keeper of the Seals / has chewed so much bee’s excrement, / I give him (for he’s a worthy man) / his seal already spat upon … ”) Others, with light revisions, could be mistaken for Merle Haggard verses:

Item, to my poor mother I give
(For her to hail our mistress with) —
Who for me has bitter grief,
God knows, and many sorrows too, —
No other castle have I, or fort
Where I may shelter body and soul
When harsh distress comes down on me,
And neither has my mother, poor thing! —

In some cases Villon left his heritors ballades and songs rather than objects, and these poems-within-the-poem show Villon at his most tonally unhinged. Randy come-ons—“at waking time, when her belly resounds, / she climbs on me so as not to waste her fruit”—follow bitter jeremiads about the passage of time and the briefness of youth. (“And you the pretty sausage girl, / who are so nimble when you dance …. / don’t show your teacher disrespect / or soon you’ll have to shut up shop … / when you become withered and old.”) Occasionally he tells parables like that of the robber Diomedes, whom an emperor bought out of poverty and thereby, the poet slyly argues, rescued from his life of crime. (“If I could arm myself like you,” the criminal tells the richer man, “Like you I’d be an emperor.”) The sensibility that emerges from these cluttered elements was decidedly nasty and prickly—that of a young man who’d prematurely taken on an old vagabond’s mistrust of other people and, for all his affronts to organized religion, an old cleric’s distaste for sensual pleasure. It was as if, in many cases, he couldn’t decide whether his warnings to “pretty sausage girls” and his cautionary tales to aspiring thieves were in earnest or jest.


Verlaine drinking absinthe in the Café François 1er in 1892. Photo: Paul Marsan Dornac.

A similar ambiguity lingers over the poems Paul Verlaine wrote between 1872, when he’d more or less abandoned his wife Mathilde and their child in favor of Arthur Rimbaud, and 1890, by which point even his more generous critics tend to agree the quality of his work had declined. (As most likely did Villon, he died young, shortly before his fifty-second birthday, in 1896.) Verlaine led a turbulent life—between his marriage in 1870 and his flight to Belgium with Rimbaud two years after, he’d had to decamp to the country briefly for his involvement in the Paris Commune—and the poems he wrote during this period show him both pining for and repudiating a more settled state of mind.

Not long after Verlaine fled with Rimbaud, he started performing his guilt and regret on the page. In one 1873 poem, he longed for the “gay moist tenderness” he imagined he and his wife had enjoyed. In another, he despaired over his dependence on his younger lover: “I’m tired of the varnished holly-tree / and of the shining boxwood too // tired of the field’s monotony / and of everything, alas, but you!” He titled his 1874 collection Romances sans paroles, and in an 1889 poem he imagined those same “love songs without words” stinging his “washed-out heart” with their accord discord (“discordant chord”). By the time that earlier collection was published, Verlaine had been imprisoned in Mons for wounding Rimbaud in a drunken fight (that he was openly gay and a former Commune member surely did not help his case).

His next book, Sagesse, reflected the position in which he found himself after his release: lonely, financially pressed, a new convert to Roman Catholicism who struggled no less to submit to the faith than he’d had to submit to marriage. (In one poem, he approvingly imagines “the soul that calmly bears its wrong” as a “voice that sustains / artlessly its marriage-song.”) In these later Verlaine poems, death often appeared as a form of consolation and difficulty as a kind of virtue:

The humble life with tedious, simple work
is an act of choice, and a deal of love it asks
To keep gay through dismal weeks and not to shirk,
To be strong, and waste yourself in wretched tasks …

Verlaine left prison a branded man, at least in his own assessment, and a recurring fantasy in these poems is of forgetting his disgrace in a kind of work mostly unknown to this Paris-raised poet: agricultural labor. (One of the brightest poems in Sagesse imagines a harvest in which “all is a breathless straining and a stir.”) He traveled widely in the early eighties—including to Britain, where he taught at various schools and survived another intense, tragic love affair—but he spent his final years destitute in his home city, an urban outlaw whose lifestyle stood at an odd remove from the pastoral, spritely freedom he considered poetry’s highest state:

Let your verse be a quick-wing’d thing and light—
such as one feels when a new love’s fervor
to other skies wings the soul in flight.

Happy-go-lucky, let your lines
disheveled run where the dawn wings lure,
smelling of wild mint, smelling of thyme ….
and all the rest is literature.


In his biography of Verlaine, Stefan Zweig suggested a memorable, if possibly dubious, picture of the poet’s upbringing:

His mother, all goodness and devotion, spoiling him with too much tenderness and forgiveness, passes through his life with uniformly quiet tread; she is a wonderfully noble martyr … Once when with hat on his head he had slept out the remainder of a wild night, her only comment was the silent one of holding a mirror before him.

For Villon, Verlaine, and Merle Haggard, mothers did the work of conscience; their “bitter grief,” in Villon’s words, was a powerful source of regret and shame. That Gregory Corso ended up writing comparatively guiltless poems, some of which revel in the same kind of criminal freedom Verlaine fretted over, is partly because his mother had a different place in his private mythology. Barely a year after Gregory’s birth, in 1930, Michelina Corso fled her husband, a physically abusive garment worker, to return to her hometown in Italy. As a child Corso lived with a series of foster parents, then, miserably, with his birth father. By his early teens, he was serving repeated sentences in New York municipal jails. He did his longest period of time, in Clinton, at seventeen. “Every poem I wrote,” he once told Jack Kerouac in a long letter from 1958 about his early writing,

had something to do with a mother … I remember when Allen [Ginsberg] took me to see Mark van Doren my first year out of prison. I really wasn’t too intent on going to see him, but Allen persuaded me, and he had me bring all my poems. Van Doren didn’t make any comment, but when Allen and I got up to go he said: “Too much mother.” That night I burned all my prison poems.

In another letter from the same year, he summarized the state of mind from which all of these outlaw poets sporadically wrote: “Though I learned much in prison … I had not learned how to live in the world; and thus when I found myself alone, lost, hungry, I became almost afraid, almost like a pregnant rat with a broom over it, and so I struck.”

His poems were no less ways of striking out than his thefts. Gasoline, which he published in 1958 together with his earlier collection The Vestal Lady on Brattle, is full of outbursts that fray and divide the poems that include them. From “I Am 25”:

With a love a madness for Shelley
Chatterton Rimbaud
and the needy-yap of my youth
                        has gone from ear to ear
            I HATE OLD POETMEN!
Especially old poetmen who retract
who consult other old poetmen
who speak their youth in whispers,
saying:—I did those then
            but that was then
            that was then—

corso-gasoline-vestal-ladyIf Villon and Verlaine were always staging conflicts in their poems between outlaws and the parents who weep over them, Corso’s voice as a poet was pointedly parentless. He “let his lines disheveled run” more than Verlaine ever did, in one case—“Ode to Coit Tower”—letting them spill to more than five times the width of the page. He nurtured strong sympathies for rootless and disposed figures like the vagrant at the center of “The Last Warmth of Arnold,” who “used to walk around South Street / wondering about the various kinds of glue.”

Much later in life, Corso would serendipitously reunite with his mother in Trenton, New Jersey; but in these early poems, her image seems to goad him into further imaginative excesses rather than restrain him or bring him to shame. He was willing to write lines that could seem ridiculous (“Rose is my visionic eyehead of all mysticdom”), and he sold those leaden lines with such flair that they could seem as “quick-wing’d … and light” as Verlaine and Villon’s more obviously graceful ones. Most often, his attitude resembled that of the narrator of Haggard’s 1969 single “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am,” who “keeps thumbing through the phone books / and lookin’ for my daddy’s name in every town,” yet still turns his vagabondage into a point of satisfaction. (“Things I learned in a hobo jungle / Were things they never taught me in a classroom / Like where to find a handout / While thumbin’ through Chicago in the afternoon.”)

Haggard’s father died when he was a child. In an interview from 1977, he told Billboard that his mother Flossie Mae, who “had a good education,” soon thereafter “took a job as a bookkeeper for a meat company” to support Merle and his brother. The family lived in a renovated boxcar to which rooms had been added as annexes. Pride—national, familial, personal—has always been an elusive concept for Haggard, whose many public political judgments are for the most part cautious and open-ended enough to allow an unhelpful range of interpretations. The outlaw persona he popularized required an odd mixture of proud convict’s defiance (“I paid the debt I owed ‘em, / but they’re still not satisfied”) and Christian self-recrimination.

Like many of the best outlaw poets, Haggard has always hesitated to resolve this contradiction. He has preferred to settle with images that suggestively combine loyalty and transgression, bravado and shame. “She had a boy who was, uh, more than wild,” Haggard said of his mother in the same interview. “There was a period that came up that my mother just couldn’t handle. My dad wasn’t there and my older brother tried to step in and of course I resented that. It just got all confused and messed up. Momma certainly did try.”

Max Nelson’s writings on film and literature have appeared in The Threepenny Reviewn+1, Film Comment, and Boston Review, among other publications. He lives in New York. 

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