Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 812
Critics and reviewers have suggested that Etheridge Knight, who served an eight-year prison sentence in the 1960’s, expresses in his poetry a metaphorical search for freedom. His use of powerful language and his evocation of his own personal experiences are the most notable and recognizable traits of his poetry. Knight was born on April 19, 1931, in Corinth, Mississippi. He was sentenced to prison for robbery in 1960, and while he was incarcerated in the Indiana State Prison he began writing poetry. Knight, however, had been reciting poetry long before his prison days.
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An important aspect of Knight’s Mississippi background is its strong oral literary tradition. This oral literary tradition can manifest itself in many different forms. One of the forms Knight was most familiar with was the “toast,” which is a “long, memorized narrative poem often in rhymed couplets.” These toasts often relate “sexual exploits, drug activities, and violent aggressive conflicts” of people familiar to the person making the toast. By the time Knight entered prison he was adept at making these toasts; he perfected the activity as an art form while in jail. These toasts were the literary activities that provided the foundation on which Knight would build his career in poetry.
While he was in prison Knight’s toasting captured the attention of his fellow inmates as well as the interest of some listeners on “the outside.” Dudley Randall, the founder of Broadside Press, was one of the first of the “civilian” population to recognize Knight’s natural gift with language. Randall visited Knight in the Indiana State Prison and encouraged him to pursue his talent, suggesting to Knight that he translate his toasts into written poems.
Randall evidently made an impression on Knight. His first two collections of poems, Poems from Prison and Black Voices from Prison, deal exclusively, as their titles suggest, with prison experiences. The second compilation is the more polished of the two prison volumes. This volume, which also includes some work done by Knight’s fellow prisoners, delivers the message that “the black man in prison is as close as we can get to the classic end-product of a segregated society.” Brutal language and a hopeless view of prison life distinguish all the poems in this collection.
Despite the harsh language and dark quality of Knight’s verses, the academic community recognized Knight as a major American literary voice. After his release from prison in 1968 he was hired as a writer-in-residence at the University of Pittsburgh. He stayed in Pittsburgh for one year before taking a similar position at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. After staying there for a year he moved to Jefferson City, Missouri, and became the writer-in-residence at Lincoln University. He left that post and academia in 1972 to devote more time to his poetry.
Knight’s reputation was not limited to academic circles; members of the literary community were also quick to recognize his talent. With his first two volumes Knight won the praise of his fellow poets. Such established artists as Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Bly, and Galway Kinnell repeatedly expressed their admiration for Knight’s poetic prowess.
With Belly Song, and Other Poems in 1973 Knight further impressed the literary world. The poems in this collection again detail Knight’s prison experiences. Each piece, in Knight’s words, incorporates “a strong and unifying presence of a persona wrung from experience.” Belly Song, and Other Poems received nominations for a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize.
Although Knight was often cited as a major African American poet, some critics objected, suggesting that there was little in Belly Song, and Other Poems that indicated much artistic growth. With his next volume of poems, however, Knight silenced these critics by demonstrating that he could expand his technical range and broaden his subject matter. In Born of a Woman: New and Selected Poems, Knight achieved new heights in his career as a poet. Critics generally lauded this volume, calling it “a superior volume.”
The essential theme of Born of a Woman is “life inside and outside prison.” Prison life, in some of the poems in this volume, becomes a peripheral concern. Knight focuses instead on his love for his family; at times his attachment to his community also surfaces. For the first time readers of his poetry were able to get a glimpse of the depth of Knight’s talent.
Since the publication of the collection The Essential Etheridge Knight in 1986, Knight’s verse and reputation faded into relative obscurity. Knight, at his best, combined his rhythmic speech with his compassion for humankind to produce some of the most stunning poetry in contemporary American literature. However, too often Knight limited his subject to the confining world of prison life; by restricting his poems to such a narrow sphere, he excluded more readers than he was able to include. He died of lung cancer on March 10, 1991.