Monday, April 21, 2014

The Prisoner Poet

The Story of James Lewisohn
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.
The Visit
 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.)
He doesn’t.
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

Roslyn Lewisohn

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.”
Jimmy sits in the inmates' cemetery. He finds refuge here.
 From Parade Magazine, Aug. 20, 1979,
"The disenfranchised and scorned lie here, he says. "They will not be judged again."
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 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. My professor gave me an A- for the story and said: “This is a sensitive, superbly-written piece based on your very incisive reporting abilities. Outstanding. Really outstanding! At least I saw some benefit from this story.

Sunday, April 20, 2014


An Early Spring Walk Around the Hilton Homestead

By Mary Sue Hilton Weeks

Mary Sue Hilton Weeks
Current owner of the Hilton Homestead

I took an early spring walk around the Hilton Homestead and these are some of the things I saw.


I began my walk outside the old schoolhouse I converted into my home.
Hmm…hoofprints on my front lawn.

And in the garden across the street.


They seem to be heading toward the lower field.


So there you are.


Is it really mid-April?


Apple tree down over the winter. Good thing I have my new chain saw!


Bennett’s garlic is up!

Remains of an old foundation on top of the hill. I remember the cellar hole as a child.


Someone was hungry during the winter.

Water coming out of the ground.

Woodchuck hole, anyone down there?
I guess Spring has really come to the farm. Happy Spring everyone!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Decorating Easter Eggs
For ideas on how to decorate your Easter eggs and have a fun time with the kids, go to The site has several ideas. Here’s a few. For more ideas, go to the site.
Use leaves or flowers to create a unique design. Simply place your chosen leaf or flower on the outside of an egg and slip it into a pantyhose, tightly securing the hose with a knot. Lower the egg into your chosen color. Leave eggs in the dye until you’ve achieved your desired brightness and then remove from dye.
Helpful Hints
·         Cut panty hose into squares and tie a knot at the bottom.
·         When tying the open end of the panty hose, ensure that it’s tied as tightly against the egg as possible, so the leaf does not slip during egg dyeing.
·         Use scissors to cut open the nylon to easily extract the egg and leaf.
·         If leaves aren’t available, try fresh herbs like cilantro, parsley or sage.
That's A Wrap
Thinly coat a piece of bubble packaging with acrylic paint, then roll egg over the paint. Let the paint dry on the egg, then repeat with another color, if desired.
Helpful Hints
·         Paint a very thin coat of paint three to four bubbles wide to ensure clear "bubble" imprints; dab bubble wrap with a paper towel if paint looks too thick.
·         To layer color, make sure paint dries on egg between each coat.
Dainty Designs
Find beautifully patterned paper napkins and cut out the design. Apply them to the outside of the egg using decoupage glue (Modge Podge) or craft glue.
Helpful Hints
·         Colorful paper napkin patterns can be found at your local home or party store.
·         If a pattern is intricately detailed, use a cuticle scissors to cut out the design.
Have fun. Happy Easter!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Spring Fever…Real or a Poet’s Joke on Us
Robin at the Hilton Homestead, photo by Mary Sue Weeks

In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” …Alfred, Lord Tennyson
There is some scientific evidence that, yes, Spring Fever really exists. If you consider SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder that could very well be true. It may also be true that our poets are leading us down the garden path so to speak by spreading all these love poems based on the glories of Spring and the feelings the season invokes in all of us at some level or other.
According to Fever 101 hormones may be the driving force behind Spring Fever. As the days grow longer and brighter, we rejoice, we go out into the sunshine and stretch our legs and exercise more. All of which, according to some scientists, increases our hormone levels, vis a vis sexual drive until we could say that yes we have “Spring Fever.”
Spring Poetry
As for all that spring love poetry, I’ll leave that to the real poets and to our resident poet, Kendall Merriam. This month he gives us two spring poems, “Daffodils in March” and “Spring Moon-A Fragment.” Check them out at his blog space.
Song of Songs
The greatest love poem ever written appears in both Hebrew and Christian literature in Song of Songs. The following information about Song of Songs is excerpted from Wikipedia:
The Song of Songs, also Song of Solomon or Canticles (Hebrew: שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים, Šîr HašŠîrîm, Greek: ᾎσμα ᾈσμάτων, asma asmaton, both meaning "song of songs"), is one of the megillot (scrolls) found in the last section of the Tanakh, known as the Ketuvim (or "Writings"), and a book of the Old Testament.
Unlike other books in the Hebrew or Christian Bibles, “Song of Songs” does not teach a lesson or impart any ecclesiastical wisdom. It simply celebrates sexual love. It gives "the voices of two lovers, praising each other, yearning for each other, proffering invitations to enjoy.” The two are in harmony, each desiring the other and rejoicing in sexual intimacy; the women (or "daughters") of Jerusalem form a chorus to the lovers, functioning as an audience whose participation in the lovers' erotic encounters facilitates the participation of the reader.
In modern Judaism the Song is read on the Sabbath during the Passover, which marks the beginning of the grain harvest as well as commemorating the Exodus from Egypt. Jewish tradition reads it as an allegory of the relationship between God and Israel.  Christian tradition, in addition to appreciating the literal meaning of a romantic song between husband and wife, has also largely adopted an allegorical reading of the piece, taking it as relating Christ (the bridegroom) and his Church (the bride).
Here is a verse section from the poem:


Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—
    for your love is more delightful than wine.
Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes;
    your name is like perfume poured out.
    No wonder the young women love you!
Take me away with you—let us hurry!
    Let the king bring me into his chambers.
(To read the complete poem, go to “Hedi Bak…A Friend in Time” in the January 2012 archives.)
Hollywood took advantage of this tradition in America with a series of films called “Beach Blanket Bingo.” Many more versions were to follow. Enjoy this trailer of the 1965 film. We miss you Annette.
Passover begins at midnight tomorrow, April 14 and runs through April 22 at midnight. Christians just observed Palm Sunday and will celebrate Easter this Sunday, April 19.
Enjoy your spring, Good Pesach, Happy Easter, and thanks for listening.