Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane by Etheridge Knight

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Perhaps no American poet has written more authentically and compassionately of the inmates of United States prisons than Knight. His premise is that American society produces particular behaviors in the members of its virtually enslaved underclass that criminalize them. This then rationalizes society keeping them in penal compounds. This underclass in the twentieth century was radically overrepresented in prisons by male African Americans. The most resistant inmates are often dehumanized by social and technological behavior modification projects.

One reading of the poem can invoke the “black Prometheus” imagined by W. E. B. Du Bois. Hard Rock and the prisoners are Promethean avatars. “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane” invokes the Promethean crime of stealing power—however briefly—the Promethean setting of imprisonment with stone and chains, and the Promethean punishment of repetitive mutilation.

“Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane” recalls one of just three characters Knight explicitly named in his Poems from Prison , in addition to “Ol’ Rufus” and “Freckle-Faced Gerald”—both of whom were remarkable for their gentle vulnerability. The African American male prisoner Hard Rock is the persona of the genius of rebellion. He deserves the fear that the current rulers of the establishment accorded him. Above all, he has the reverence of the inmates. He is loved because his resolve is not defeatable by natural forces. Moreover, because his punishment is permanent, the beacon of his example is timeless. He is a “Destroyer” of docile...

(The entire section is 390 words.)