Writing on the Prison Wall

Catherine O'Neill Thorn

“It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” —William Carlos Williams

devozine Journaling TS 86539389My vision was to offer teens in treatment the gift of poetry, in hopes that it would help in their healing process. I first started working with young men in treatment for addictions and/or sexual perpetration. A little intimidated, I wondered, Why do I believe that poetry can make a difference for these kids?

I didn’t anticipate a highly receptive group, so I was stunned to discover that these teens were thirsty for poetry. I have since learned that no matter what they’ve suffered, young people want to give their hearts and they want someone to listen—really listen—to their dreams, desires, disappointments, and fears.


Tony, 13, was one of the young men in my poetry therapy group. He wore a black jacket with the hood up and folded himself into a corner, peering out apprehensively.

After a few weeks, I asked Tony to write me a poem. He was reluctant; but at the end of the session, he shyly approached me with a poem he had written:

     I sit in the corner
     not knowing what to do
     not wanting to talk
     but people want me to
     wanting to cry
     not able to
     not knowing why
     God! I want to cry

During another session, I asked the group to write about something they could offer the world. When I asked Tony to write another poem, he looked scared. “No,” he said.

“Do you have something you could give the world?”

“I don’t know.”

“Once you wrote a poem for me when you didn’t want to. You wrote a lovely poem. That tells me that you have a big, generous heart. Isn’t that what the world needs?”

A smile flickered across his face. “I guess.”

“Well,” I continued, “Assuming you were to give your heart, would you hold it close to you, as if you were afraid?”

“No!” he answered emphatically.

“How would you give it?”

He stretched out his arms. “Like this.”

“Will you write a poem about how it would feel to give your heart and how you would want another person to receive it?”

He nodded his head once.

Later he handed me the poem but didn’t want to read it aloud. When I asked if I could read it to the group, he nodded. And he looked proud. This is Tony’s poem:

     If I was going to give my heart
     I would put it out
     into an open space
     Whoever wants to can take it
     Take as much as you like
    devozine Healing TS 124037970 I have a lot to give
     But please be gentle
     My heart is fragile
     Don’t throw it in my face
     It would break
     My heart is already scarred
     I don’t want another
     Be gentle
     I care
        —even if you don’t
     I car
        Take my love

When I finished reading, there was silence . . . then applause. The boys in the group began to reach out to Tony with hugs, pats on the back—all responded with deep admiration.

sand heart in hands FTR TSP 178642133Tony’s poem expressed what many teenagers feel: a desire to be loved and to love, a desire to give their hearts. Poetry can be a safe way to communicate the humanity, wisdom, passion, beauty, and sorrow in our hearts. Tony and many other teens, whose attempts to communicate with the adults in their lives have been dismissed or devalued, have discovered that poetry can also increase their chances of being heard.

Taking the risk to write and to listen to poetry can help us learn to regard one another as God regards us and to hold one another carefully and respectfully, appreciating each person’s individual beauty while acknowledging the similarities among us. Through poetry, we may learn to listen to one anothers hearts.



TRY THIS: Find the courage to put your thoughts, feelings, and ideas into words. Set a timer for ten minutes. Without stopping to think and without taking your pen off the paper, write a poem about

  • devozine journal hand92457502what you would change about your life and how changing would affect your future.
  • what you would like to say to someone, if only he or she would listen.
  • what you have to offer the world.

Don’t worry about rhyme or meter, and don’t edit! Just write. By writing, you may discover your gifts and give of your heart.


Catherine O'Neill Thorn is a poet, publisher, and poetry therapist in Denver, where she works mainly with adolescents. She is editor of the youth arts magazine Inner 303, a publication of The Spot, Denver's nighttime urban youth center.

—from devozine (November/December 2000). Copyright © 2000 by The Upper Room®. All rights reserved.

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