Themes and Meanings
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 submission to the depraved ingenuities of the penal curriculum. As a “doer” he authors acts of defiance of the malignant culture and legal code of American prisons and the psychopathological punishments his heroic infractions bring down upon him.
To be insane, mad, and wild is to be heroic in a sense that names white, Middle American culture an abomination and privileges the fabulous “status”of divine defiant madness. As a reenactment of the old crime against race and human morality, the poem provides an exorcism of the historic and modern slavery—“The fears of years, like a biting whip,/ Had cut grooves too deeply across our backs”—of African Americans. It is also an insinuation that the “dream of doing,” at least, endures. In doing so it nourishes the irrepressible longing for freedom, which is the subject of the poem.