Etheridge Knight

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Craig Werner (essay date 1981)

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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, [1979] 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 be afraid if you get off the subway in Harlem. It's the same fear, but the situations are different." This widening of the definition of the People to include any reader capable of responding to his emotional impulse in no way entails a movement away from populism. The lasting contribution of the Black Aesthetic to Knight's poetics lies precisely in his continuing commitment to the People: "I pay attention only to the people in the audience. If they don't dig it, then it ain't nothing no way."

This commitment to the People, even when "it is lonely … and sometimes/ THE PEOPLES can be a bitch" ("A Poem to Galway Kinnell"), defines Knight's poetic achievement throughtout his career. As the structure of Born of a Woman indicates, Knight has approached this commitment from a variety of perspectives. Part I, titled "Inside-Out," focuses on Knight's awakening in prison and his dawning awareness of his relationship with an outside world. Part II, "Outside-In," concentrates on his self-exploration—the Poet is one-third of Knight's aesthetic trinity—once released. Part III, "All About—And Back Again," reemphasizes that, whatever his explorations, the Poet Knight ultimately returns to the base he finds in the People and expresses in the Poems.

The political poetry written concurrently with "On Universalism" attests to the complexity of Knight's practice. His eulogy "For Malcolm, A Year After," originally published in Poems from Prison, carefully manipulates metrical tensions and rhyme schemes to make its statement of support for the nationalist warrior. Knight begins with a bitter statement that he will stay within the Euro-American tradition for fear that any formal departure might bring in its wake a self-destructive emotional explosion:

Compose for Red a proper verse;
Adhere to foot and strict iamb;
Control the burst of angry words
Or they might boil and break the dam.
Or they might boil and overflow
And drench, drown me, drive me mad.

Rhyme connects the form in the "iamb" and the anger in "dam" which he then inverts in "mad" to complete the conceptual sight-oriented off-rhyme. He concludes the opening section by at once embracing and rejecting the very language, the white man's language, in which he writes:

Make empty anglo tea lace words—
Make them dead white and dry bone bare.

The very words he molds into the "proper verse" embody the values of a literally murderous culture.

The second stanza emphasizes that while Knight uses the Euro-American culture's form, he uses it to advance the political cause of black nationalism. Inverting the traditional conceit of the poem living eternally despite the death of the man, Knight writes that his poem, an artifact of the oppressive culture, will die, but its message, the message of Malcolm X, will live:

Compose a verse for Malcolm man,
And make it rime and make it prim.
The verse will die—as all men do—
But not the memory of him.

The concluding triplet of the poem, implicitly parodying the standard couplet form, further emphasizes the revolutionary emotion inspired by both the life and death of Malcolm X:

Death might come singing sweet like C
Or knocking like the old folk say,
The moon and stars may pass away,
But not the anger of that day.

While Knight the singer works within traditional forms, his vision is insistently that of the nationalist warrior.

Most of the poems in "Inside-Out" echo this intensity of anger. Knight portrays Hard Rock, lobotomized, serving as a symbol of contemporary "slavery:"

The fears of the years, like a biting whip
Had cut deep bloody grooves
Across our backs.

He writes of his own isolation from his family in "The Idea of Ancestry," an isolation which leads him back to prison. And, ironically juxtaposing his statement with the largely traditional forms in the first section, he concludes in "A Poem for Black Relocation Centers" with the portrait of Flukum who "couldn't stand the strain. Flukum/ who wanted inner and outer order" and who meets an uncomprehending death in Vietnam. Clearly, the poems in "Inside-Out" point to the necessity of a vision of the world going beyond the simple recognition of victimization.

"Outside-In" reflects both Knight's concern with the Poet's personal struggles to attain this vision and his determination to generate forms, many of them reflecting the Afro-American musical tradition, which adequately express this vision. Both a cry of personal agony and a demonstration of Knight's ability to shape his poem out of the materials of both Euro- and Afro-American culture, "The Violent Space" stands among the most powerful lyrics and recent decades. Mingling allusions to the Garden of Eden and the folklore of black Mississippi, Knight begins:

Exchange in greed the ungraceful signs. Thrust
The thick notes between green apple breasts.
Then the shadow of the devil descends,

The violent space cries and angel eyes,
Large and dark, retreat in innocence and in ice.
(Run sister run—the Bugga man comes!)

The intricate interplay of sound (large-dark; the repeated "in" sound which stresses the feeling of entrapment of innocence) and rhyme (cries-eyes-ice which implies the freezing of the emotions and tears) is set against the fear of the inchoate "Bugga man." The Bugga man image recurs throughout the poem; even the Poet's mystic chant is an insufficient response:

Well, shit, lil sis, here we are:
You and I and this poem.
And what should I do? should I squat
In the dust and make strange markings on the ground?
Shall I cant a spell to drive the demon away?
(Run sister run—the Bugga man comes).

Finally the Poet invokes the authority and strength of the black spiritual tradition, but that too fails to repulse the demon:

"O Mary don't you weep don't you moan"
O Mary shake your butt to the violent juke,
Absorb the demon puke and watch the white eyes pop,
(Run sister run—the Bugga man comes).

The demon, now clearly associated with the white culture which passively supports the agony, undercuts the black source of strength. The Poet, unable to make his connection with the Person he loves, is isolated:

I am not bold. I cannot yet take hold of the demon
And lift his weight from your black belly.
So I grab the air and sing my song.
(But the air cannot hold my singing long).

Clearly, isolated singing is an insufficient response to the situation of individuals victimized by an oppressive culture. Knight once again implies the need for the warrior to act when the song fades or erupts.

Not all of Knight's explorations in "Outside-In" lead to such stark confrontations. He has nevei been simply the Poet of the victim. Knight's musical experiments with toasts ("Dark Prophecy: I Sing of Shine"), blues ("A Poem for Myself), and African percusive rhythms ("Ilu the Talking Drum") involve a wide range of emotional experiences, including that of remembered and discovered love in the jazz poem "For Eric Dolphy." He returns most insistently to jazz in poems which employ irregular but insistent rhythmical patterns and repetitions in the place of a basic Euro-American meter. "Another Poem for Me" typifies this practice:

what now
what now dumb nigger damn near dead
what now
now that you won't dance
behind the pale white doors of death
what now is to be
to be what you wanna be
what you spozed to be
or what white / america wants you to be.

The tension between the "what now" and the "to be" phrases moves the poem rhythmically and thematically, insisting that the Poet must not remain a victim but must shape his own being. Jazz, ultimately, aids the Poet in the necessary journey back into himself.

In the poems of "All About—And Back Again," most of which are collected for the first time in Born of a Woman, these explorations and experiments merge in Knight's mature poetic voice. "I and Your Eyes" exemplifies the music and the concerns of this voice. The "And I … your eyes" pattern forms a rhythmic base, derived more from jazz than from traditional metrics:

And I                      your eyes
draw round about a ring of gold
and shout their sparks of fire
And I                      your eyes
hold untold tales and conspire
with the stars. And stirs my soul.

Using the pause between the two repeated phrases, Knight creates a tension, a sense of separation leading toward the connection embodied by the imagery. As he expresses the separation and pain of love, he departs from the ground rhythm, leaving an emptiness in the sound of the poem:

The traditional use of rhyme to emphasize crucial thematic points reenforces the jazz devices. This is the voice of an accomplished singer.

Along with this technical maturity, the poems in "All About—And Back Again" reveal that Knight has attained a commensurate maturity of vision. Just as "I and Your Eyes" combines the control of traditional devices with jazz techniques, "We Free Singers Be" insists on the importance of both the warrior embodying the values of the Black Aesthetic movement and the singer, reflecting the evolutionary emphasis of Chant of Saints. The poem's title implies this. "We" gives the sense of group identity, the nationalist perspective, the People. "Free" provides an internal rhyme, demonstrating Knight's continuing willingness to work with the Euro-American tradition in a way which renders it indistinguishable from the authenticity of his individual, clearly black, voice, and establishes the political emphasis on liberation. "Singers" invokes the emphasis on the artist, the Chant of Saints orientation, the Poet. "Be," the third rhyme word invoking the verbal play, the mock-excess of black oral tradition, provides the fulcrum for both the thematic and rhythmic movement of the poem.

Knight opens the poem with contrasting pastoral and military images of the "free singers":

We free singers be
sometimes swimming in the music
like porpoises playing in the sea.
We free singers be
come agitators at times, be
come eagles circling the sun
hurling stones at hunters.

They are at once porpoises swimming in music and eagles challenging the predators. "Be," which ends four lines, serves both as a statement of what they are and as the first term of what they will become. The rhythmic tension between the "we free singers be" phrase and the "become" phrases mirrors the tension between their essence—their total being which connects the singer and the warrior—and their specific circumstance in which they must become one or the other.

Throughout the poem Knight alternates the warrior and the singer images. He intersperses a number of memories: of days "of the raging fires when I clenched my teeth in my sleep and refused to speak"—the days of the warriors; and of days "when children held our hands and danced around us in circles"—the days of the singers. The circle imagery connected with the children echoes the circle imagery connected with the warrior eagles. No matter what the momentary manifestation, both the singer and the warrior coexist in the individual at all times. The function of the singer is in large part to be a visionary:

We free singers be
and sing of cities
with straight streets
and mountains piercing the moon—
and rivers that never run dry.

But even the visionary cannot afford to forget the reality of conflict:

Remember, oh, do you remember
the snow
on broadway
and the soldiers marching
thru the icy streets
with blood on their coat sleeves.

The fact, one with which Knight began the poem, and with which he ends it, is simply that each individual must be both: "We Free singers be, baby, / We free singers be." Ultimately, Knight says, the warriors of the Black Aesthetic and the singers of the Chant merge in the individual striving for the freedom of the Poet and the People.


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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Howard Nelson (essay date 1981)

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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.]

"Cell Song"

Night Music Slanted
Light strike the cave
of sleep. I alone
tread the red circle
and twist the space
with speech.

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
of a girl,

can there anything
good come out of

While doing eight years (1960-68) in Indiana State Prison on a drug-related armed robbery charge, Etheridge Knight turned to poetry. Within the bleakness of steel bars and

concrete walls, the frustration, immobility, rage, fear, and loneliness of prison life, and the long stretches of prison time, Knight twisted the space and created poems of remarkable force and clarity. This work was published in 1968, while Knight was still incarcerated, by Dudley Randall's Broadside Press as a chapbook titled simply, Poems from Prison. This slender book was one of several important additions to the tradition of prison writing to come out of the sixties. (Another, overlapping contribution was an anthology Knight edited, published by Pathfinder Press, called Black Voices from Prison, which contained in addition to Knight's poems a number of valuable prose pieces, by himself and others.) Beyond that, Poems from Prison was, as Gwendolyn Brooks said in her extremely concise and penetrating preface, "a major announcement." In terms of poetry, both in the context of the black poetic explosion of those years and of American poetry as a whole, an important new voice was making itself known. It was poetry that came out of painful experience, but instead of any shrillness or self-pity, there was a boldness, a solidness, that suggested deep reservoirs of strength.

In 1973 Broadside brought out a second collection by Knight, Belly Song. The title was well-chosen, because it identified precisely the two outstanding qualities of Knight's art: powerful feeling, which centers in the belly, the gut; and music, a vital, full-breathed music that demonstrates steadily that the poet is in touch with old, elemental sources of poetic energy.

Now Houghton Mifflin has brought out Born of a Woman, which brings together virtually all of the poems from the earlier books and a good deal of more recent material. It isn't a thick book for nearly twenty years' work, and it is no doubt uneven. But it contains a number of poems—"The Idea of Ancestry," "The Violent Space," "For Freckle-Faced Gerald," "As You Leave Me," and "Ilu, the Talking Drum" would certainly be among them—which should become permanent entries in the ledger of American poetry, should "lodge themselves in a place where they will be hard to get rid of." As a total volume, too, Born of a Woman is a moving and lifeenhancing book, recording the motions of a spirit that is torn and frayed but resilient and persistently loving. Through the qualities of life it contains and the qualities of its art, it describes a victory over desolation, against the odds.

…. .

What keeps us alive? In or out of prison, one answer is other people. "We must love one another or die," as Auden put it. Knight has always been sure to acknowledge this. In the preface to the Black Voices from Prison anthology, he acknowledged "Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, Dudley Randall, and Don L. Lee: black poets whose love and words cracked these walls." In Born of a Woman, he gives a list that has grown to over forty people he feels indebted to.

In a way, Knight's poetry itself is another form of acknowledgement. People, relationships between and among people, are his compelling theme; it is present in nearly all his work in one form or another. I want to follow this thread in talking about Knight's poetry.

In Belly Song Knight had a nice existential individualist blues fragment, dated 8/72, called "Evolutionary Poem No. 1":

In Born of a Woman he has followed this piece immediately with "Evolutionary Poem No. 2," in which a switch to the plural pronoun points in a different direction:

"No. 2" is dated September 1979, the same date as that of the book's preface, nine months before its publication. Very likely Knight noticed, as he was rereading and reorganizing his work for the new collection, that his earlier statement, though in large ways true for himself and everyone, was counter to the fundamental current running through his poems: the impulse to celebrate nourishing human relationships, to lament their various breakdowns, to protest their betrayals.

On the broadest scale, this impulse appears in a sense of racial solidarity, as in "Poem for 3rd World Brothers" and "For Black Poets Who Think of Suicide," both exhortations to blacks to give themselves deeply to the energies and causes of their people. Elsewhere on the spectrum, the same basic theme emerges out of such a small, unexpected incident as the one in "A WASP Woman Visits a Black Junkie in Prison." At first outraged by the absurdity of this unasked-for visit from a "prim blue and proper-blooded" stranger, he soon recognizes that it is a situation of one loneliness reaching out toward another, and ultimately he finds himself strangely moved and quieted by the simple exchange they manage to construct.

The theme often appears in the form of celebrations of "heroes" of various kinds. There are poems honoring artists—Langston Hughes, Max Roach, Otis Redding—, and three strong elegies to Malcolm X. There are also other sorts of heroic characters, from Pooky Dee, whose "great 'two 'n' a half gainer" from a railroad trestle one summer afternoon long ago ended with the sickening "sound of his capped/Skull as it struck the block," and left a permanent scar in his watchers' memories; to Shine, the black stoker on the Titanic in Knight's marvelous version of the folk poem, who rejected the pleas and bribes of various white establishment figures who couldn't stay afloat by themselves, and "swam on"; to Hard Rock, a black convict who refuses to cooperate in his own imprisonment and performs exploits of resistance which end in his lobotomy but also confront the other immates with an unsettling example of courage and integrity. Each of these people, real or legendary (often both), from Langston Hughes to Hard Rock, has in some form or other given a gift, left a mark, that turns mere existence into reality.

In the last three poems mentioned, there is a blend of vivid lyric and narrative impulses which is typical of Knight. "Hard Rock," for example, is a character sketch and an elegy, a compressed short story and a meditation on moments of intense feeling and realization. Another poem that contains the matter of a story and the music and intensity of a lyric is "For Freckle-Faced Gerald." While most of Knight's poems are in one way or another expressions of admiration or gratitude or love—are in one way or another affirmations—in the case of Gerald the most the poet can do is offer grief and outrage in the form of clear-eyed description of his subject's hopeless situation. Truly written and felt, this turns out to be an expression of a kind of love too.

The poem deals with a sixteen-year-old boy who has been sent to prison. In addition to his youth and inexperience, Gerald has going against him his inability even to strike a pose of self-assurance and toughness. Instead, he has "precise speech and an innocent grin." For him, being put in prison amounts, as the poem tersely puts it, to being "thrown in as 'pigmeat'/for the buzzards to eat." The buzzards in prison are the men who exploit Gerald sexually and otherwise. But they are only part of a much larger scenario of exploitation and dehumanization, which the poem opens out upon in its last stanza:

Gerald, sun-kissed ten thousand times on the nose
and cheeks, didn't stand a chance,
didn't even know that the loss of his balls
had been plotted years in advance
by wiser and bigger buzzards than those
who now hover above his track
and at night light upon his back.

Such writing is a tough-minded song of protest and mourning. It is powerful because it is direct and firmly crafted, and also because of its sense of controlled rage. Knight is as aware of the violations human beings commit against one another, on all levels, in endless forms, as he is of the bonds that help to sustain us.

Another strong character sketch is "He Sees Through Stone." It is a portait of an old black convict, apparently long imprisoned, who has taken on a wisdom that gives him a kind of mythic significance. "Pressed by the sun/against the western wall/his pipe between purple gums," the old man is surrounded by young inmates. Possibly they gather around him to hear stories he has to tell, but the poem does not tell us this. Instead, it describes a more subtle attraction. The poet says, "I have known him/in a time gone by," and goes on to describe a sense in the old man's presence of a timeless guide or initiator who has somehow been with him through all the rites of passage of his life:

he led me trembling cold
into the dark forest
taught me the secret rites
to make it with a woman
to be true to my brothers
to make my spear drink
the blood of my enemies

Apparently the other younger men sense this in him also. It is this recognition that sets up the old man's ability to "see through stone."

In the work of most poets there are certain words or images that recur regularly, in some cases obsessively. Not surprisingly in a poet who spent years in prison, one of Knight's persistent images is stone. It represents not just physical walls and imprisonment, of course; more importantly it stands for emotional barriers, insensitivity, the dead weight in the spirit that needs to be pushed away or penetrated or transformed in order for caring energies to flow again.

There are two kinds of stone in the poem: the stone walls of the prison, and the stone wall each person sets up himself. Knight picks up the slang metaphor "cats" and elaborates its suggestions: the "black cats" "circle," "flash white teeth," "snarl," have "shining muscles." But all this fierceness is a pose, a mask, ultimately another kind of stone wall erected in the name of defense. The old man leaning in the sun against actual stone is not impressed by the posturing. He understands and penetrates it: "he smiles/he knows"—knows the vulnerability that lives behind it. And somehow, the poem suggests, he is consequently a reassuring force, an outer presence who is also an inner presence, a kind of steady witness and companion to the hidden life the self lives within walls within walls.

In a broad sense, about ninety per cent of Knight's work could be called love poetry. And naturally, poems that fit that term in the conventional sense make up an important part of his book. My personal favorites in this category are "As You Leave Me," which creates haunting currents of emotion through imagery of great precision and dramatic effect, and "Feeling Fucked Up," marvelous in its use of sound, a profane litany, a down-to-earth lament, written wonderfully at gut level all the way through to its culminating repetitions:

Another strong group is the poems that deal with family. Some of these take a sort of ritual form—words spoken for important events, such as a birth ("On the Birth of a Black/Baby/Boy") or an escape from death ("Another Poem for Me—after Recovering from an O.D."). There are straight-forward elegies, such as "The Bones of My Father," and anecdotes, as in the warm, low-key "Talking in the Woods with Karl Amorelli." Also within this group are two poems which, rightfully, have usually been among those representing Knight in anthologies: "The Idea of Ancestry" and "The Violent Space."

"The Idea of Ancestry" is a poem about what it means to belong to a family—not just a nuclear family, but a large weaving of people that spreads out to include several branches and generations—and what it feels like to be isolated from it. The poem is in two parts. It begins with the poet lying on his prison bunk gazing at the forty-seven photographs of relatives he has taped to his wall. Looking at them, he gives a series of small catalogues of connectedness: "I know/their dark eyes, they know mine. I know their style, they know mine … /I have at one time or another been in love with my mother,/ 1 grandmother, 2 sisters, 2 aunts (1 went to the asylum) … /I have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews,/and 1 uncle…." The pictures and his thoughts make him feel part of a vital human flow—the ongoing, complex, living thing a family that has a sense of itself can be—but at the same time sharpens his loneliness. This is particularly so because the uncle at the end of the last list, it turns out, has long since vanished: "disappeared when he was 15, just took/off and caught a freight (they say)." He is at once a part of the family and "an empty space." Year after year he has been discussed by the family, especially by the ninety-three-year-old matriarch of the clan who is the keeper of the family Bible and the symbol of family roots and tradition. "There is no/ place in her Bible for 'whereabouts unknown.'" The uncle's absence is a presence when the family gathers, and the poet, alone in his cell, ripped out of the fabric by a prison sentence, is haunted by the feeling that he has more in common with his uncle than a name.

The second section of the poem is a flashback to a family reunion which took place a year earlier. Both parts of the poem are set in fall, the season when the poet's yearning to get back to the family is always strongest—appropriate because of Thanksgiving as well as more subtle mortal reasons. With his characteristic vivid conciseness, Knight describes the longing to get back among family and family places—as basic as the instinctual drive of a migrating salmon—and the pleasure and ease of finally being on home ground again. But this time too he was pulled away from the family, in this case by a narcotics habit which forced him to leave and in turn led to his imprisonment. Then the poem returns to the present and the cell with its silent "47 black faces." The poet's thoughts have made him very restless: he paces, flops down on his bed—torn by his double sense of connectedness and isolation. He repeats a sort of invocation of the lone individual to the family spirit, spoken earlier as well—"I am all of them,/they are all of me, I am me, they are thee"—, then closes with another specter of loneliness and the breakdown of his life-lines within the family: "…. and I have no children/to float in the space between." In these last two statements the poem follows its fundamental curve, away from abstract formulation of an "idea of ancestry" into definition in terms of a field of emotions grounded in concrete situations and images. The idea may remain unparaphrasable, but when Knight has finished his poem it has become a solid, subtle, moving thing.

"The Violent Space (or When Your Sister Sleeps Around for Money)" is another extraordinary poem. (When Knight reads this poem to an audience, he makes a point of reminding them that the "I" in a poem, even with a poet as autobiographical as himself, cannot be assumed to be the author. In reality the poem grew out of talks with a fellow inmate whose sister had been a prostitute. Knight's own sisters, he explains, confronted him in not very good humor after having first seen the poem, and out of courtesy to them he gives a brief lecture on persona and negative capability, though he doesn't use those terms. Knight often has a way of bringing matters of literary technique and theory down to a practical, common sense level.) The poem's subject has the potential for a great deal of emotion built into it, but that emotion is only realized and communicated through Knight's masterful dramatization and use of language.

The speaker's sister is "all of seventeen." He is a heroin addict; quite likely some of his sister's earnings go to support his habit. In an agonizing present, the brother makes a poem for his sister that has woven within it memories and feelings of their childhood: the far different, simpler pain she felt once when stung by a wasp; the refrain from a children's rhyme. The juxtaposition of these memories and associations against the present situation is skillfully handled, as is the rendering of the brother's protective impulses, then and now, toward his sister. When she was stung by the wasp, they "flew home" together. But now, rather than coming to her aid, he is only the outraged, ineffectual observer—perhaps even beneficiary of her suffering.

The poem's imagery is worth noting. Typical of Knight, it favors directness over ingenuity. The images— e.g., "green apple breasts," "red wasp," "twisted spoon"—are clear and sharp but do not call attention to themselves; their purpose is to convey scenes and feelings in a vivid, immediate way. In this quality they are reminiscent of the imagery one finds often in folk ballads. Also working through the poem is a powerful motif of religious references. More important still, however, is sound. Throughout the poem there are musical effects that are at once elemental and sophisticated. Alliteration, assonance, rhymes and slant rhymes within and at the ends of lines, refrains, parallelisms, fragments of actual songs—all are used to great effect. One could go through the poem and point out instances of these musical devices, but a better way to present these superb rhythms and repetitions is to set down the poetry itself so its total music can be heard. Here are the last three stanzas of "The Violent Space."

Well, hell, lil sis, wasps still sting.
You are all of seventeen and as alone now
In your pain as you were with the sting
On your brow.
Well, shit, lil sis, here we are:
You and I and this poem.
And what should I do? should I squat
In the dust and make strange markings on the ground?
Shall I chant a spell to drive the demon away?
(Run sister run—the Bugga man comes!)

In the beginning you were the Virgin Mary,
And you are the Virgin Mary now.
But somewhere between Nazareth and Bethlehem
You lost your name in the nameless void.
"O Mary don't you weep don't you moan"
O Mary shake your butt to the violent juke,
Absorb the demon puke and watch the white eyes pop,
(Run sister run—the Bugga man comes!)

And what do I do. I boil my tears in a twisted spoon
And dance like an angel on the point of a needle.
I sit counting syllables like Midas gold.
I am not bold. I cannot yet take hold of the demon
And lift his weight from your black belly,
So I grab the air and sing my song.
(But the air cannot stand my singing long.)

The speaker feels a terrible anguish at the fact that all he is able to do in the face of this situation is to "grab the air and sing [a] song." Yet for the rest of us, readers, listeners, brought into wider, more intense feeling and awareness by the song, it makes a tremendous difference—the difference great poetry makes in life. One thing that helps to heal our alienations is relationships, bonds of feeling and concern; another, not separate thing is poetry. Galway Kinnell has written a poem to Etheridge Knight, the final lines of which are worth quoting here. The painfully beautiful "The Idea of Ancestry" and "The Violent Space" must have been among the poems he was thinking of when he wrote them: "broken heart brother, sing to us/here, in this place that loses its brothers,/ in this emptiness only the singing sometimes almost fills."

…. .

Shifting away from the theme of relationships which I've been following, I want to say more now about the key element in Knight's work that I've already begun discussing: sound. The entire book is laced together by Knight's unabashed sense of verbal music, right down to the titles of its three sections: "Inside-Out," "Outside-In," "All About—And Back Again." But I want to talk about sound not just in terms of poetic devices within poems, but also in terms of the actual spoken voice, the whole question of how we read and appreciate poetry.

I know that many people don't consider it quite legitimate to talk in criticism about poetry as a spoken, performed thing. There are various reasons for this. In America, most people who read poetry have been conditioned to think that the poem on the page is what really matters. (It is—but not exclusively.) Contributing to this is a training that leads us to think of poetry as a set of ideas and techniques rather than as an experience that includes them, the notion that there is an equation between greatness in poetry and how much explication it will sustain, and a condescension toward poetry whose strength lies in direct oral communication of emotion. We're suspicious of poetry which doesn't seem to have the impact on the page that it did when we heard it read well aloud. This is sometimes valid, but one needs to be careful here. Just as the poem must do its work well, so must the reader. I have often seen poems undervalued or misunderstood because of failures of aural (i.e., oral) imagination on the part of readers.

Ironically, the proliferation of poetry readings in recent years has also fed the prejudice against poetry in its oral incarnation. I certainly wouldn't deny that poetry readings can be creepy and tedious occasions, or that some poets are such poor readers that they do their audience and poetry a disservice when they give a reading. On the other hand, there is a cranky, reactionary attitude that is blind to the fact that it is fundamentally proper and healthy that poetry is being read aloud to audiences across the country. The prejudice can be observed in a segment of almost any college English department, but also in a statement by no less than the editor of Poetry magazine, John F. Nims, in a letter to another poet reported in The Chowder Review:

I probably won't be able to make your reading.
Mostly because I don't like poetry readings, or
other kinds of show-biz. My eyes glaze and I
have to gag a lot to keep from vomiting. Better
a week-end in a leprosarium than a poetry reading.

In the years since his release from prison Etheridge Knight has earned his living principally by giving poetry readings. He is an excellent reader. His deep, resonant voice is a gift. He is sensitive to the rhythms and inflections of poetry and "ordinary" speech, and he is sensitive to his audiences and knows how to reach them. As a black poet he stands in a living tradition of toast-tellers, rhymers, and singers. He believes that poetry is most fully itself when it is spoken aloud to other people; and as I've said, his poems have an immediacy and music that lend themselves to that kind of presentation. So I suppose he has all the qualifications to be called an oral poet. But the term is not a very precise or useful one, and too often it is used to put poems in a category without granting them full status as poems.

I think that poetry can be made accessible to the
so-called general reader if it can be heard—and
I've written almost everything I've done to be heard.
Once that occurs, there's usually understanding.

The author of this statement is Theodore Roethke. Was he an oral poet, or just a poet? What I'm suggesting is that, generally, drawing this line is misleading rather than clarifying.

There is of course poetry that strains violently against the printed page in an effort at what Larry Neal has called "the destruction of the text," in which the text becomes roughly suggestive, a rudimentary score for improvisational performance. This is a good ways further out on the spectrum that what I am discussing here. My point is simply that reading poetry aloud is fundamental to the art, and that oral presentation draws forces out of the words which otherwise lie in them to some degree lost or wasted. Some poems lose more than others in a reading that doesn't do justice to their oral aspects, but whether one is reading The Waste Land or "After Apple-Picking" or "The Windhover" or "The Sea Elephant" or "The Navajo Night Chant," one needs really to hear the sounds, the tones, the voices, to truly receive the poem. Poetry readings—good ones, such as Etheridge Knight or Allen Ginsberg or Donald Hall or Gwendolyn Brooks or Galway Kinnell or William Heyen, for example, are capable of giving—become therefore not only heartening public performances but lessons we might learn in trying to become better readers ourselves—of all poetry, not just that of the poets we've heard reading.

In relation to these ideas, consider Knight's "Ilu, the Talking Drum." The best way to learn to read this poem is to hear Knight's extraordinary rendering of it, but this is not essential. While it's true that probably no one else could speak the poem as well as he does, it has its power within its words and will have still a hundred years from now.

The theme is again a human relationship, and in this case the poem describes how sound and rhythm themselves can create a bond among people. The poet is with a group of fifteen Nigerians. The setting is somewhat ambiguous, except for the fact that it is alien. A mood of torpor and restlessness hangs over them, and is communicated largely through the sounds of the words. We begin in a chafing silence: "The stillness was skinny and brittle and wrinkled." Those stingy, shallow i sounds are soon picked up again, joined by sharp p's, t's, and s's and bald long a's: "We twisted, turned, shifted positions, picked our noses/stared at our bare toes, hissed air through our teeth …" The stifling tedium is also conveyed through a series of monosyllabic phrases using doubled, very ordinary adjectives: "wide green lawn," "wide white porch," "big white house."

A breakthrough occurs, however, when one of the Nigerians rises and begins to play a rhythm on "Ilu, the talking drum." The emotional change is announced before it begins to happen, through sound—the entrance of long, open o's and u's: "Then Tunji, green robes flowing as he rose, strapped on Ilu, the talking drum." It is in what follows that the poem becomes either boring or marvelous, depending on how we read. The drum speaks, and Knight lets us hear it:

kah doom / kah doom-doom / kah doom / kah doom-doom-doom
kah doom / kah doom-doom / kah doom / kah doom-doom-doom
kah doom / kah doom-doom / kah doom / kah doom-doom-doom
kah doom / kah doom-doom / kah doom / kah doom-doom-doom

If one follows habits learned from reading newspapers and most other prose, and skims over this as if it were so much filler, the point of the poem is missed. But if one reads the words carefully, actually sensing the reverberations, one is pulled inside a rhythmic flow that stands for life itself. In the next stanza Knight does in fact identify the drum beat with the heart beat. Much repetition; generous sound; a profound theme:

the heart, the heart beats, the heart, the heart beats slow
the heart beats slowly, the heart beats
the blood flows slowly, the blood flows
the blood, the blood flows, the blood, the blood flows slow
kah doom / kah doom-doom / kah doom / kah doom-doom-doom

At the end of the poem Knight suggests the great human distances that can be spanned within such sound, the freshened consciousness and sense of liberation it can create. Then he closes with the drum beat. When the poem ends there is an amazing silence, in which we seem to hear the echoes of the drum, or possibly it is the buried sound of our own blood beating—a very different silence from that which the opening of the poem described. "Ilu, the Talking Drum" is a marvelous poem, with rich veins of music and meaning and feeling. But it needs to be read truly.

There are other chant-like poems in Born of a Woman, such as "We Free Singers Be" and, especially, "Belly Song." But the book as a whole, from the incantatory effects of "Ilu" and "Belly Song," to the fine unsolemn repetitions of "Feeling Fucked Up" and "Welcome Back, Mr. Knight: Love of My Life," to the simple refrains of "It Was a Funky Deal" and "I and Your Eyes," to the small, tight rhymes of "A Shakespearean Sonnet: To a Woman Liberationist," to notations like "Cop-Out Session," where the music is just the live music of black speech itself (working everywhere in Knight's poems): the whole book is wound around sound—vigorous, invigorating sound.

…. .

"The warmth of this poet is abruptly robust. The music that seems effortless is exquisitely carved." These are further words from Gwendolyn Brooks' preface to Poems from Prison. The two aspects Brooks put her finger on are the basic ones I've tried to deal with; and Knight has carried them on in the continuing creation that has now become Born of a Woman.

Here is another of the notation-like poems that are scattered through the book, making something like a gloss:

My Life, the quality of which
From the moment
My Father grunted and comed
Until now
As the sounds of my words
Bruise your ears
And can be felt
In the one word: DESPERATION

But you have to feel for it

We do have to feel for it, just as we may have to retune our reading to the potencies of Knight's music. But doing these things shouldn't be too hard, because the desperation—which in Knight's case is entirely bound up in and a part of tenacity and loving concern—as well as the music are ample and made fully accessible through the skill of Knight's art. Born of a Woman contains a harsh, generous, beautiful poetry. It is breath of life.

Principal Works

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Poems from Prison 1968

Belly Song and Other Poems 1973

Born of a Woman: New and Selected Poems 1980

The Essential Etheridge Knight 1986

Ashby Bland Crowder (essay date 1983)

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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 companion poems might be seen as variations on the it's-tough-to-be-black-in-America theme. Yet I believe that in them Knight is going beyond the victim pose. He understands and uses the vocabulary of victimization not simply to issue a complaint but to investigate the irony of the concept of relocation.

The idea of black relocation, Knight's central metaphor, is older than the War Between the States, and the term "relocation" carries with it far-ranging associations. It brings to mind the relocation of Africans to southern plantations. It recalls the freed slaves who were relocated in Liberia in 1847. It suggests the Nazi relocation centers for Jews; the U.S. relocation centers for Japanese Americans during World War II; the centers in cities all over the country provided for the down-and-out, the transient, the homeless, the dislocated; and even Urban Renewal's relocations of entire ghettos. In our recent social history, concepts of relocation, refuge, and elimination have become merged and confused, a phenomenon that Knight uses to advantage in these two poems.

The first of Knight's "2 Poems" concerns the black man Flukum (his name suggestive of his uncertain existence) who seeks "inner and outer order" and so joins the army. The army has a remedy for Flukum's uncertainty, a system for attending to all of his needs and for ordering all aspects of his life. Like Cummings' Olaf, Flukum must adapt his own conscience to the unconscionable demands of the system; in return he is taught "how to button his shirt, / and how to kill the yellow men." If he experiences doubt about genocide, there is a "Troop Information Officer" and an official overseas newspaper, the "Stars / and Stripes," to set him straight. A "good Chaplain" will absolve him of residual guilt, and Flukum will be paid for his services. For awhile, on the other side of racism, he feels acceptance. And in war he feels safety.

Back from the war, Flukum distributes the spoils he has won ("presents for all"), but he is "surprised" to find that nothing at home has changed. He "had thought / the enemy far away on the other side of the sea." But the enemy at home, his real enemy, shoots him in "his great wide chest." When his effects are distributed to his family, U.S. officialdom withholds his dagger, the only item on the list that might conceivably symbolize power. The black war veteran finds, then, that his homecoming is more dislocating than the battlefield.

In the second of the "Poems for Black Relocation," Knight presents another black man, this one unnamed and unmourned, who has died on the home front, in Detroit. He has died with lice in his beard, surrounded by filth, in a slumlord's firetrap flat. This gruesome image of charred beams and splintered glass is heightened by the stench of "roasted rats / and fat baby rumps."

Here the relocation theme takes a different turn, for Knight sees the second man as a phoenix figure ("And he arose out of his own ashes. Stripped.") whose "halo glowed / and his white robe flowed magnificiently / over the charred beams." This resurrection figure is a more powerfully imagined character than Flukum, perhaps even a Christ figure; but the point still seems to be that the only possible relocation center for the poor black man in America is a traditional afterlife, the kind of other-worldly redemption that Blake implies for his blackened chimney sweeps in The Songs of Innocence.

The poem's final line is a packed image, in which the dead man is summed up as "A faggot in steel boots." The term "faggot" carries the obvious reference to homosexuality and suggests that the dead man experienced in life a double liability, according to the orthodoxy of the society in which he lived. The word "faggot" brings together several suggestions made earlier in the poem. The faggot (a bundle of twigs for fuel) is linked to the Holy Inquisition, during which unorthodox persons (including homosexuals) were eliminated in great autos-da-fé. A faggot is also a bundle of iron rods to be worked into something, suggestive of the industrial worker; and there is an obsolete sense of the word, apt here, that ties the industrial worker to the soldier of poem one: "a person temporarily hired to supply a deficiency at the muster, or on the roll of a company or regiment." In addition, "faggot" also evokes the expression "fag end," the remnant or "last part … of anything, after the best has been used …". And the simple verb "fag" means to work hard, strain, and toil. Thus the poem's final line condenses the references to the fire that charred the room and the phoenix soul arising. Knight thus argues that the black man has been the human fuel for society's building and productivity, a drudge used temporarily in the industrial workplace. His fate is to be reduced to a part of the material of building, to be consumed in the act of fueling, yet in the end to transcend the "shouting [of] impieties and betrayals."

The steel boots are presumably the protective footwear required of an industrial worker in Detroit, but they also imply an alloy in the black character and experience that is not combustible, and that will survive in some form. Thus the phrase "faggot in steel boots" combines implications of toughness and vulnerability.

The individual ironies of "2 Poems for Black Relocation Centers" add up to an overall ironic intention. The title itself turns out to be ironic, for the poems do not advocate relocation centers; instead, they negatively suggest that what are needed are alternatives to displacement of all kinds—institutional, psychological, racial, religious. Throughout "2 Poems" Knight has pointed out the kinds of reversals of justice and expectation that lead to a world lacking "inner and outer order"; his observations lead to an ironic reversal of the usual prescription to solve social problems.

Etheridge Knight with Ron Price (interview date 1986)

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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.
(Poems From Prison)

And with "Belly Song" you develop this theme into a kind of leitmotif:

In a letter you subsequently used as the introduction to Belly Song And Other Poems, you write of your upcoming parole: "I'll soon be with my woman and children in the larger outside prison." What begins in a specific place in your first book of poems, generalizes in the second into the condition of life in America, if not the world.

[Etheridge Knight]: My major metaphor is prison. I think art is ultimately about freedom, the celebration of that freedom—whether it's individual or general. One of the major themes of art is aloneness: You're constantly reaching out for community, for communication. Art is a reaching out. When you're in prison you become extremely aware of your aloneness, or any place where you're isolated and you've got that introspection going on. When you become involved in the creative process, you become extremely aware. In prison, when you're pregnant with creativity, you're extremely aware of the outside world. You tend to not want to deal with that outside world. There's so much pain and brutality and oppression that you want to encapsulate yourself. You just want to pull covers and covers and covers over yourself. Just to be aware of your existence when you're in prison, man, is painful. Sports: You can wrap yourself around that and not be aware of all the other levels. You get in such a deep rut you can't get out of it. You won't be aware of who is elected governor. It doesn't make any difference what food is put on the table. You just read the sport's page and that's all.

In the introduction to Born Of A Woman, you write:

I see the Art of Poetry as the logos ("In the beginning was the Word") as a Trinity: the Poet, the Poem and the People. When the three come together, the communion, the communication, the Art happens.

If you get into just I, I, I, I, I—the first person, the poet as strictly personal—you don't get a revolving going on. Art is revolutionary. The language—the written word and the spoken word, but especially the spoken word—is so evocative that there's a constant recreation going on.

My birthday was last Monday. It's funny … My mamma told me again how I was born. She's walking down this country road and she's complaining how hot it was and wasn't no shade trees along this road and she wanted to sit down and I was born before the midwife got there. Well, that's recreating.

When you get these three things revolving, a communion takes place: It's ritualistic. Saying a poem or telling a story, you have got to evoke. Each one in the audience will use his or her imagination and identification. You send out a line to each one. It ain't like you was throwing out a big net and catching all the fish. What you're saying is one straight line from you to each person. And some you miss. Generally, if you try to reach "universality" by just throwing out a net of abstractions, you ain't going to get it. That ain't the way people operate. That's why it's so important to know your poems.

Now, I remember when I first started reading. I'd be nervous. A lot of people don't understand what's going on at a poetry reading. It's damn near like going to church: everyone all uptight and proper. I'll pick out the friendly faces and make eye contact with them first, until I get over my nervousness, and then I move on. But at some point you get caught up; you're aware. You can look out there and tell. It's not like the form you get in public speaking: raise your eyes up every now and then from the page. I have seen people do that. And when they be looking at the audience, they'll be looking over the audience, looking off into left field or right field. Like Ronald Reagan. Yea. He'll turn to the audience and at the precise moment: blah, blah, blah, blah, blah to the left; blah, blah, blah, blah, blah to the right. It's performance.

In addition to public speaking, then, you make a distinction between a poetry reading and a performance?

Yea, because performance is, simply, prescribed. The whole thing is drama. There are certain ways you start off making contact. There's a greeting, an exchange. "Hello. How ya doing?" There are these same ground rules in drama, but to follow a script is what I see as performance.

There ain't no exact course. You're moving in a general direction, but you can't just follow what's written. When we started the Free People's [Poetry Workshop], one of the things was to get out of the controlled environment of a campus, to be public. There are variables that are going to come in that you have to deal with: A drunk might stagger up; a baby might start crying. And you have to deal with it. You can't just keep on with what's prescribed. In the first place, you aren't being aware. You're depending more on what's written than on what is happening right now.

The texts for most of the toasts and anecdotes you use—"The Signifying Monkey," "Shine," "Eulogy For Slick," "Fight Him Fair Nigger"—were developed inside jails and barracks and bars, but you have also given a lot of readings in college communities. Does that have an influence on what you're saying now? And how much does your audience affect the dynamic interaction you are describing?

A lot. If I'm saying a toast in a pool room or a jail, I'm going to get feedback that's different than if I say it on a college campus to a mixed audience. The emphasis, the connotation of the words, the rhythm and march and cadence, it changes. In the first place, you'll be breathing differently than if you're at your mother's house. The way you walk and talk, everything is going to be different. If you're in the company of children you're going to breathe differently. It's the same wine, you're just putting it in a different jug.

During a poetry reading, then, this expanded sense of what comprises the text is part of what facilitates the communication, the communion?

Yea. The main difference is the word, the spoken word. You're going to use your body, if it ain't no more than a few hand gestures. Understand: The spoken word is the main vehicle. For me, drama is the total art: You've got visual and you've got movement; but it's the dialogue that's going on; that's the center. If there's a point of departure, that's it. That's why it's hard for me to stand behind a podium. Most good preachers and politicians, when they get caught up, they are going to move. It's a motion. You get a rhythm going. In the Baptist churches the choir and preacher will start rocking. It's a very primal thing. When you get everybody into this, that's the universe. One verse.

Could you say a little more about "getting caught up?"

I think it happens on two levels. One is a physical level. When the poet and the audience start coming together in some kind of ritual—the part in a poem that might happen with cataloging or a litany or intoning. A change takes place, the words become familiar, the audience relaxes, they can anticipate. This has to do with mechanics, the poetics, the sound and rhythm. Once you recognize this intoning, you can feel what will come next before it is said.

When I think of trance, I think of non-concentration. That's not it. It's also not like concentrating on a flame or on a point. It's an extreme awareness, a common motion. If I say "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9," you're going to expect "10." The audience and the poet latch onto something shared, a common movement. There's a line from the poet out to one person and back to the poet, and then out to another person. Then individual lines in the audience crisscross and some come back to the poet and others don't.

So you're not changing your mind about the kind of give and take that goes on between you and your audience so much as your description of that event, decentralizing your position in the event?

Yea, yea. A physical change takes place. I've seen it in preachers … just people, when they get angry: There's a physical thing. You see it in the audience. They may just sit back and let the poems come, but when a poet starts to sing, when that leap takes place, you can see the audience shifting. It's the same way with a congregation: They start to breathe together, they start to lean forward, they start rocking.

The other thing, besides the physical, is the audience expecting something familiar, the abstraction. Sometimes this getting caught up happens quickly, sometimes more slowly. The main thing is what the poet addresses, what he's dealing with, the audience will have to be in general agreement with to sustain that community. It doesn't have to be political; it could be a passion. Community is determined in part by physical closeness, and in part by history and common ideas. The intoning has got to be in the language of the people and the rhythm of the audience, or else they won't know what is happening.

You have written:

No universal laws
Of human misery
Create a common cause
Or common history.

How are these lines qualified by what you are saying now?

I made that poem up in response to a lot of poets and scholars, especially academics, who said Black poets weren't addressing "universal" themes. You know, "Black poets shouldn't talk about politics or their particular pains. They should address themselves to abstract and universal ideas." That's bullshit.

Art has to address specific things—one's own. It is always subjective. If I talk about my loneliness, it has more authority and validity. Loneliness is probably the same for a Tibetan monk as it is for an Irish potato farmer. Loneliness is loneliness. There are feelings and ideas common to all people. The poet addresses these generalizations by being specific. You have to move from the subject to the object. To discuss war in the abstract is different than discussing war with your brother whose leg was blown off in Vietnam.

How do you understand the relationship between poetry and religion?

They are close. The main vehicle for the poet and the preacher is the spoken word. And they both deal with intangibles, the spiritual and the aesthetic aspect of people. So a poet has to be familiar with his or her audience. An audience might not be familiar with poetics; but when a good reading happens, the audience is aware of the poet as a person, the same way a congregation is aware of the preacher's presence above the mechanics of the sermon or even the message of the sermon.

One reason the church failed and one of the main reasons that art has failed is because the language of the church and the language of the arts (the authority of the church and the authority of Western European art) never adequately dealt with the contemporary side of the language. The use of the historical authority was not tied in with now. Anytime you depend on history to determine your outlook without taking into consideration what is happening right now—without giving that equal authority—you become institutionalized, and you're going to get inertia. It's going to die out.

The Word is a living thing. Its life depends upon constant renewal. The life of the Word does not depend entirely on history; it also depends on what is going on right now. The word that comes into the language now is as important as a word that has been in the language a thousand years.

Again, there have been other influences recently, but it's still a Western European orientation, and that nullifies a lot of sensibility. When you consider the geography and the history of America, it's very different from Europe. Most of the countries of Europe are tribes. They speak different languages. Our states are as big as most of their countries, and we've got one language spread all over America. America is like the top of a table. Instead of four legs, some try making it rest on one European leg. Our consciousness, our sensibility has been informed by the Indians, by Africans, by Hispanics, as well as by Europeans. History is important: world history. When I was in high school, and we were supposed to be studying world history, we were studying Western European history. That's world view, but it isn't world history. Europe is not irrelevant to the life of America, but it is no more important than Nicaragua.

If you don't want a center—Rome or Paris or New York City or Moscow—how do you see this community, this uni-verse, existing?

Constantly moving, constantly whirling: spheres of influence and confluence, like currents in the ocean. Power shifts. Civilizations shift around this planet, and the reason they are constantly shifting has more influence or certainly as much of an influence as what men do. Biology is a part of this shifting, along with the movement of the oceans and volcanos and the movement of the stars. The way the world is determines the way power shifts. Since there are so many variables, so many determinants, I think the best name for this shifting is Chance. We can't put our finger on a single thing, or even a small group of things, to explain why people are like they are, why power shifts. We know that language is informed and, in part, determined by history and by what is happening right now. But there are also dreams and hopes and fears about the future. Language grows out of so many different things. We can't get down in words exactly what happens that causes wars, causes peace, causes ecstatic experiences, causes tears and pain and love. We can't pin it down because language grows out of these things.

Between the introduction to Born Of A Woman and your current analogies with Christianity, it's as if the relationship you understand to be so close is different, primarily, because it emphasizes immanence instead of transcen-dance. It's as if you would drag Paradise down from some "elsewhere" and into this world: as if the condition of this world is a prison without that sense of communion; as if freedom is the process of such a community.

Yea, it's the activity. We can theorize and talk about freedom in prison: that's all subjective. You get into the activity, you move to the verb, and a lot of theory will be thrown by the wayside, or revised.

Somehow we are all moving toward this uni-verse, this great song and dance. It's like boogying in a dance hall: Everybody might be moving differently, individually, but the big beat, the great rhythm, everybody's into the same….

You move from the "I" to the "We" through the Verb. It goes back and forth. It's not a polarity. It's a trinity. It keeps going around.

You know, there's this debate in Arkansas about whether children ought to be taught the biblical idea of the beginning or the scientific idea of the beginning. Ain't nobody seriously considered the third alternative: We always were; we always will be. Here are all these Ph.D.s talking about, "This is how it all began." Each one starts with the same assumption: There was a beginning. No. We are: We always were; we always will be.

That eternal quality is the part that is set free through the communion of the poet, the poem, and the people?

Yea, yea! You draw on memory (the past) and imagination (the future)—you tie them to right now. Your address has got to be now. You can exploit memory, the status quo. "Back in the good ole days …" There wasn't any "good ole days." That's the Garden of Eden. "I remember when things were cool." Or, "Twenty years from now when I retire…." That's Heaven. "I'm just passing through this world. Heaven's going to be my home." You can exploit that in people. Now: That's where the freedom is.

That breaking out? Not being locked into the past or the future?

Yea. When you make contact, the communion, the community happens. It's a celebration. The whole thing is a celebration, always. Then you move to the universe. It's not static. There ain't no one big long come; we know that. You move in and out. You're always moving; that's the thing. Otherwise, you fall asleep. You're always in motion, constantly moving. That's why it takes three. Otherwise, you've got a beginning and an end. You've got polarity: plus and minus, black and white, rich and poor, young and old. You don't have a verb. You've got a subject and an object. Now, what's going on between them is as important. The two things by themselves—there ain't a fucking thing going on. So what?

Do you think such dynamic interaction is possible outside the context of a poetry reading? When someone is privately reading a poem in a book?

Yea, if the reader is approaching the poem right … in the same way my mother approaches the Bible: looking for something. There's an actual physical thing going on. Even when we're trying to read silently, there'll be little things moving in your throat and ear. That's the thing I'm talking about—the physicality of poetry. It's in the breath.

Further Reading

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Gibbons, Reginald. Review of The Esssential Etheridge Knight by Etheridge Knight. TriQuarterly 71, (Winter 1988): 222–23.

Positive assessment of Knight's poetry.

Hill, Patricia Liggins. '"Blues for a Mississippi Black Boy': Etheridge Knight's Craft in the Black Oral Tradition." Mississippi Quarterly XXXVI, No. 1 (Winter 1982–83): 21–33.

Explores the influence of the black oral tradition on Knight's work.

Pinsker, Sanford. "A Conversation with Etheridge Knight." Black American Literature Forum 18, No. 1 (Spring 1984): 11–14.

Interview in which Knight discusses the concepts of black aesthetics and "poeting."

Tracy, Steven C. "A MELUS Interview: Etheridge Knight." MELUS 12, No. 2 (Summer 1985): 7–23.

Explores the work of several African-American writers, including Knight.

Additional coverage of Knight's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Black Literature Criticism; Black Writers, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 133; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 21–24 (rev. ed.); Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 23; Contemporary Literarary Criticism, Vol. 40; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 41.

Raymond R. Patterson (essay date 1987)

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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 found him indispensable.

A photograph on the back cover of The Essential Etheridge Knight shows the mature author looking into the smiling face of a child. Recall the 1968 Broadside Press chapbook Poems from Prison, Knight's first collection. The back cover shows the author seated on a cot in an attitude of willed composure, his right leg across his left, his hands clasping the right knee, the fingers interlocked, ridged, echoing the grid of cell bars at his back. "I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound and narcotics resurrected me," the author tells us. "I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life." The essence of Etheridge Knight?

Many of the twenty-eight poems first published in Poems from Prison—"a major announcement," declared Gwendolyn Brooks—appear in The Esential Etheridge Knight. They are placed among work drawn from two later collections, Belly Songs and Other Poems (1973) and Born of a Woman (1980), followed by a section of recent poems. While Poems from Prison opens with "Cell Song," a grim statement of alienation ("I alone / tread the red circle / and twist the space / with speech") softened by earthy humor ("Come … sprinkle / salt on the tail / of a girl"), The Essential Etheridge Knight opens with a bit of flim-flam: "Split my skin / with the rock / of love old / as the rock / of Moses / my poems / love you" ("Genesis"). But once inside the book, we encounter the familiar gallery of doomed prison inmates: Hard Rock, "known not to take no shit," until "the doctors … bored a hole in his head, / Cut out part of his brain, and shot electricity / Through the rest"; the aged convict who "sees through stone," "who under prison skies / sits pressed by the sun / against the western wall"; the raped Freckled-Faced Gerald, "sun-kissed ten thousand times on the nose / and cheeks … Pigmeat / for the buzzards to eat." We meet again the doomed of society's larger prison: the streetwalker and her impotent lover in "As You Leave Me"; the ineffectual brother in "The Violent Space"; the almost-saved prodigal in "The Idea of Ancestry"; the patriotic Flukum, the soldier home from war, "shot in his great wide chest, bedecked with good / conduct ribbons" ("A Poem for Black Relocation Centers"). Here, too, are the elegies for Langston Hughes and Dinah Washington, and four poems for Malcolm X, one addressed to Gwendolyn Brooks: "The Sun came, Miss Brooks. / And we goofed the whole thing." So much doom, frustration, and failure redeemed by poetic feats of visual and psychic accuracy, such poignant detailing of loss: "In the August grass / Struck by the last rays of sun / The cracked teacup screams." The essence of Etheridge Knight?

Reading The Essential Etheridge Knight, one notices sun images recurring almost too frequently, as if designed to tempt speculation: Let's see—the sun/son is father to the man, but the father hasn't been much help, and neither has the son, for that matter. "Social workers say I miss my Daddy too much," admits the poet in "Various Protestations from Various People." Something Freudian? And how vulnerable and sensitive a personality, so full of love and self-confessed flaws that beg forgiveness: "I been confused, fucked-up, scared, phony / and jive / to a whole / lot of people … / Haven't you?" ("Cop-Out Session").

The book also contains the stuff of myth: the ignoring of chronology in the ordering of poems; the wanderings of a hero; his initiations through loss; his homecoming announced in "The Bones of My Father," completing a cycle; then the hero's setting out again, filled with disappointment: "O Mother don't send me / To the Father to fix / it— / He will blow it / He fails / and kills / His sons—"("Report to the Mother"). The essence of Etheridge Knight? More like the work of an experienced escape artist covering his tracks.

Hailed as "One of America's Major Black Poets" by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Knight is quoted in a news release: "My major metaphor is prison…. I think art is ultimately about freedom…." Freedom? The essence of Etheridge Knight? Perhaps? But what strikes this reader is the poet's recidivist aesthetic, the periodic turning to the always invincible instrumentalities of oppression, initially identified as prison, but subsequently translated into other forms.

By bringing together poems that for two decades have gained Knight well-deserved attention, The Essential Etheridge Knight will attract comment on the poet's personal and political life. It will reveal his undeniable empathy for children. It will draw attention to his achievements with forms such as the haiku, the blues, and the toast (a rhymed narrative of a traditionally oppressed street/prison folk hero who for the moment is in control of his life). It will also show that Knight's place in an Afro-American literary tradition cannot be described simply. The characteristic themes of family and black identity addressed in "The Idea of Ancestry" ("I am all of them, they are all of me") are treated with an irony in "Another Poem for Me (after Recovering from an O.D.)" that is illuminated by a reading of "A Wasp Woman Visits a Black Junkie in Prison." "I made / up / the poem," Knight says about "The Idea of Ancestry" (see Stephen Berg's Singular Voices: American Poetry Today, 1985). "The initial creative/impulse for the poem occurred … during one of my many stays in Solitary Confinement."

Dedicated to members of the poet's family, The Essential Etheridge Knight closes with "Rehabilitation & Treatment in the Prisons of America," a parable that casts prison administration as a mechanism for destroying blacks, based on their acknowledgment of identity: "He was black, so he rushed—ran—through that door—and fell nine stories to the street." It is significant that Knight dedicated Poems from Prison, his first book, to "all the other black cats everywhere." Black cats, folk belief has it, have nine lives and always land on their feet. Indispensable Etheridge Knight? "Can there anything / good come out of / prison" asks the poet of "Cell Song." To read The Essential Etheridge Knight leaves no doubt.

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