Etheridge Knight 1931–1991
American poet, essayist, editor, and short story writer.
Knight was one of the most popular poets of the Black Arts Movement, a period during the 1960s of literary and cultural revival for black writers and artists. His work often protested the oppression of blacks and the underprivileged and reflected his experience as an inmate at the Indiana State Prison. He strove for a balance between "the poet, the poem, and the people," deliberately using direct language, slang, and simple poetic techniques to make his work accessible to the greatest possible number of readers.
Born in Corinth, Mississippi, in 1931, Knight dropped out of school after the eighth grade and began frequenting bars and poolrooms. At the age of sixteen Knight joined the United States Army; he served in Korea as a medical technician. During the war he began to use drugs, and by his discharge in 1957 he had become a drug addict, committing crimes to support his habit. In 1960 he was found guilty of armed robbery and sentenced to ten to twenty-five years in prison. While incarcerated, he published his first volume of poetry, Poems from Prison. After his release, he published two other volumes, Belly Song and Other Poems and Born of a Woman: New and Selected Poems. Knight died of lung cancer in 1991 at the age of fifty-nine.
Born of a Woman is considered Knight's most popular and well-received collection. The volume is divided into three sections: "Inside-Out," "Outside-In," and "All About—And Back Again." The poems in the first section convey different aspects of prison life: "For Freckle-Faced Gerald" concerns a young boy who is raped and brutalized by older convicts—an act that also symbolically represents society's oppression of the innocent and defenseless; "Hard Rock" depicts a strong and rebellious hero who defies the system's attempts to break his spirit until a lobotomy forcibly changes his character; and "The Idea of Ancestry" reveals the loneliness and isolation of a prisoner who reflects upon his crime, his family, and his heritage while looking at photographs of his relatives on his cell wall. The second section contains poems about love, and the final section includes more recent poetry that develops a greater scope of themes and subjects.
Although some commentators derided his verse for its unpoetic language and strident political rhetoric, Knight's works were generally well received by critics, who most often commended their vitality of language and personal subject matter. His poetry, which detailed his personal struggles with drugs and prison life, as well as his encounters with war and prejudice, was considered courageous and evocative of the African-American experience. He is frequently compared with such African-American poets as Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Sonia Sanchez.
SOURCE: "The Poet, the Poem, the People: Etheridge Knight's Aesthetic," in Obsidian, Vol. VII, Nos. 2 & 3, Summer-Winter, 1981, pp. 7-17.
[In the following essay, Werner examines Knight's work in light of contemporary African-American poetry, focusing in particular on the populist roots of his verse.]
In the "Preface" to Born of a Woman: New and Selected Poems, Etheridge Knight endorses an aesthetic which balances the demands of "The Poet, the Poem, and the People." The third term is crucial. While numerous influential poets and critics, among them Michael Harper and Robert B. Stepto in their recent anthology Chant of Saints,  turn to the relatively elitist transatlantic and academic traditions of Afro-American poetry, Knight's theory and practice provide a necessary reminder of the equally important populist roots of black expression. A polished craftsman, capable of exploiting both traditional Euro-American and experimental Afro-American (frequently musical) forms, Knight has emerged as a major voice in the tradition of Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks.
This emergence is particularly significant in the light of recent trends in Afro-American literary criticism. While it would be fallacious to suggest that either editor, or Chant of Saints as a whole, rejects the relationship of the artist and his community, Stepto's identification of Harper, Robert Hayden (in his last poems) and Jay Wright as the major contemporary poets raises serious questions concerning the mode and direction of that interaction. Expressing their concern for the Afro-American tradition through what Stepto calls a "synthesis of process, vocation, myth and language," all three work primarily in the modernist tradition pioneered by Euro-American writers such as Pound and Stevens and fused with the Afro-American tradition by Jean Toomer and Melvin B. Toison. This is, of course, a legitimate aesthetic tradition and does not necessarily entail the isolation of the poet from his audience, though such isolation remains a danger. Harper, Hayden and Wright all seem aware of this danger and choose their historical materials to emphasize their link with Afro-American culture. Nonetheless, the tradition elevates the poet; his sensibility fuses the fragments of history, philosophy and whatever else touches his experience into a coherent statement. At its most effective, this aesthetic transforms the poet into a teacher in the tradition of Frederick Douglass or Walt Whitman. At its least effective, it leaves him talking to himself in a crumbling cathedral.
To a large extent, the current critical emphasis on this tradition reflects the changed social and political currents of the late 1970s which were marked by a protracted retreat from the positions of the "Black Aesthetic" movement. Chant of Saints in many ways signals the start of a new phase in Afro-American letters. Nonetheless, if the volume is to be seriously advanced as the best "yardstick by which to measure the evolution of Afro-American literature and culture" since Alain Locke's The New Negro, it should be complemented by a recognition of current works with roots in the Black Aesthetic movement which, whatever its excesses, was an important evolutionary phase. Taking its primary impulse from the populist tradition, arguably the dominant tradition of Afro-American literature from David Walker through Langston Hughes to Amiri Baraka, the Black Aesthetic movement has not totally died out, but has evolved into new forms visible in the works of poets such as Knight. However much obscured by the social and critical currents of the 1970s, the presence of the People remains a central fact of Afro-American culture. Their voices, with or without formal recognition, provide the ground base for the evolutionary chant.
Knight's personal voice sounds a melody which interacts intricately with the pulse of the chant. The publication of Born of a Woman, which includes most of the work from Knight's two previous volumes, furnishes the occasion for an assessment of the ways in which this voice expresses both the political and cultural currents of black nationalism and readjusts the position of the Black Aesthetic movement in the populist tradition. Technically, Knight merges musical rhythms with traditional metrical devices, reflecting the assertion of an Afro-American cultural identity within a Euro-American context. Thematically, he denies that the figures of the singer, central to the aesthetic of Chant of Saints, and the warrior, central to the Black Aesthetic movement, are or can be separate.
One of the most recent in a long line of black writers to have discovered his vocation while in prison Knight began writing under the encouragement of Gwendolyn Brooks. His artistic awakening coincided both with the critical dominance of the Black Aestheticians and with Brooks' evolution from a "universalist" to a black nationalist perspective. Black Aesthetic spokesmen such as Addison Gayle, Jr., insisted that the historical oppression of black people in the United States had created a situation in which the Afro-American writer must commit himself to the freedom of his people and reject Euro-American cultural traditions and forms as a mark of his independence. In its most extreme forms, the Black Aesthetic demanded that the Afro-American writer serve as another tool of the revolution, creating works which would inspire the masses of black people to commmit themselves anew to political action. The artist must be a warrior first, a singer only second.
Reflecting this political and aesthetic climate, Knight's early work, while employing numerous poetic devices associated with Euro-American traditions, insists on a specifically black poetry. "On Universalism" dismisses the concept of encompassing human brotherhood as a response to the oppression of the people:
No universal laws
Of human misery
Create a common cause
Or common history
That ease black people's pains
Nor break black people's chains.
This, of course, echoes the Black Aesthetic's insistence upon the primacy of the People in all artistic endeavour.
Knight's aesthetic as reflected both in his metrics and his imagery, however, always balanced the demands of Poet, Poem, and People, granting equal attention to the aesthetic demands of the language and to the impulse toward self-expression. This synthetic approach raised questions from the beginning of Knight's career. Even while identifying Poems from Prison as a "major announcement," Haki R. Madhubuti (then writing as Don L. Lee [in Dynamite Voices, 1971]) questioned the propriety of Knight's allusions to Euro-American culture. Rather than abandoning such allusions, Knight soon relinquished the emphasis on a separate black aesthetic. Even while altering his stance, however, he maintained a strong sense of the black populist heritage: "Our poetry will always speak mainly to black people, but I don't see it being as narrow in the 70s as it was in the 60s." Extending this argument, Knight proposed a version of universalism based on shared emotional experience, rather than of specific images or forms: "My poetry is also important to white people because it invokes feelings…. The feelings are common, whether or not the situations that create the feelings are common … I might feel fear in a small town in lowa. You might...
(The entire section is 3093 words.)
SOURCE: "Belly Songs: The Poetry of Etheridge Knight," in The Hollins Critic, Vol. XVIII, No. 5, December, 1981, pp. 1-11.
[Nelson is an American poet and critic. In the following essay, he provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Knight's poetry.]
Night Music Slanted
Light strike the cave
of sleep. I alone
tread the red circle
and twist the space
Come now, etheridge, don't
be a savior; take
your words and scrape
the sky, shake rain
on the desert, sprinkle
salt on the tail
(The entire section is 5172 words.)
SOURCE: "Etheridge Knight: Two Fields of Combat," in Concerning Poetry, Vol. 16, No. 2, Fall, 1983, pp. 23-5.
[In the following essay, Crowder discusses the theme of racism in Knight's "2 Poems for Black Relocation Centers."]
Etheridge Knight's "2 Poems for Black Relocation Centers" have the standard ingredients of social protest poetry. Knight presents two case histories of black men victimized by white racist America: the first concerns a worker
in the military field of combat; the second is about an industrial worker in Detroit. Both die prematurely and senselessly, following bouts of neglect, betrayal, and defeat. If taken at face value, these...
(The entire section is 1075 words.)
SOURCE: "The Physicality of Poetry: An Interview with Etheridge Knight," in New Letters, Vol. 52, Nos. 2-3, Winter-Spring, 1986, pp. 167-76.
[In the following interview, Knight discusses major themes of and influences on his poetry, as well as his relationship with his audience.]
[New Letters]: Etheridge, you often speak of an "inverted sensibility" characteristic of prisoners, the way they are shaped by the cages that keep them. In "To Make A Poem In Prison" you write:
It is hard
to make a poem in prison.
The air lends itself not
to the singer.
(The entire section is 3059 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Essential Etheridge Knight, in The American Book Review, Vol. 9, No. 4, September-October, 1987, p. 1.
[Patterson is an American critic. In the following review of The Essential Etheridge Knight, he explores the defining characteristics of Knight's poetry.]
Whose idea was it to call this collection The Essential Etheridge Knight, the word Essential laying the poet to rest while at the same time granting him eternal life? A paradox? Certainly a provocation (the essence of Etheridge Knight, the indispensable Etheridge Knight), but also an interesting idea—to have captured the poet's essence and to have...
(The entire section is 1418 words.)