Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane

by Etheridge Knight

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The Poem

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The first stanza of Etheridge Knight’s “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane” begins the account of the long-term prisoner Hard Rock, who had a reputation for being impossible to bully, for which he suffered great abuse and physical injury, including split lips, cauliflower ears, and a long scar from his temple up through the hair on the top of his head. He has purple lips, yellow eyes, and curly hair.

Stanza 2 tells the story—“the WORD”—going around the prison that since his return Hard Rock is not an unruly person (“mean nigger”) anymore, because the doctors performed brain surgery on him and gave him shock treatment. Hard Rock is brought back to the prison handcuffed and chained. The other prisoners watch him, uncuffed and the chains removed, as if he were a stallion that was just castrated. Like Native Americans (“indians”) at an area where livestock are fenced in, they wait to see if it is true that Hard Rock is no longer unruly.

The third stanza recalls how they wait in anxiety to see how Hard Rock will act, and they take comfort in memories of his heroically rebellious deeds: To punish him for the last of these “exploits” committed by him before the reprisal surgery on his brain, it took eight prison guards, or “screws,” to put Hard Rock into solitary confinement (“the Hole”). Moreover, it is a thrill to remember again when he hit the captain of the prison guards with his dinner tray. For that spectacularly daring act he was punished with a record amount of time in solitary confinement: sixty-seven days. Also, they remember the “jewel of a myth” that Hard Rock once “bit” a prison guard on the thumb and poisoned him with “syphilitic spit.”

In stanza 4 various people of the prison population accost Hard Rock to see if he is really no longer unruly. A “hillbilly” calls him a “black son of a bitch,” and Hard Rock does not knock his teeth out; a prison guard who knows how dangerous Hard Rock had been before the brain surgery “[shakes] him down” and yells at him roughly. Hard Rock does not respond at all; he “just grin[s]” and looks stupid. His eyes are “empty like knot holes in a fence.”

The inmates lie to themselves that Hard Rock is faking his mental diminishment, even after they notice that it takes him three minutes to say his own first name. Finally, they cannot fool themselves, and they stop looking at the brain-damaged Hard Rock, instead, “crushed,” looking at the ground. He had been to them a mythic personality—their “Destroyer”—a singular being who did things they fantasized of doing but were stopped by their fear, “a biting whip” that extinguishes their self-esteem and their will to act in their own defense.

Forms and Devices

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From the poem’s synoptic twelve-word title the audience knows much that has happened before the first line of the poem is read. It is a mythic ballad. Knight himself spent time in prison: The voice of the poem is an authentic first-person plural “we” that allows the poet to endow the prisoners with an identity they are usually denied. This tactic uses direct dialogue from the inmates to recount the deeds of Hard Rock. Thus, the diction of the poem combines literal exposition with the homely patois of the rebellious and the outlawed. In addition, the poem is emphatically oral. A silent reading of the text of a Knight poem cannot render it. His poetry is unusually preliterate and elemental.

The poetics of “Hard...

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Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane” are a sledgehammer of explicitness and repetition. Of the 341 words of the poem, 286 words are monosyllabic. This monosyllabic diction creates the formal yet mythically emotional declamation of Hard Rock’s story, in which Hard Rock’s name is repeated ten times; this marginalizes the otherwise remarkable triple repetition of “screws,” the prison guards. The effect is that Hard Rock’s career is narrated as a litany—a eulogy and a prayer—that almost liturgically repeats the martyred Hard Rock’s name. Monosyllabicity deemphasizes feeling and anchors rationality. Thus, the poet is not so overwhelmed by feeling that the poem is denied a precise diction and recitation. This struggle of feeling with reason is always present in Knight’s readings: Feeling always wins out.

“Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane” also proceeds as a discourse of free verse, of five stanzas grouped in syllables of 6-8-8-6 and nine lines of ten to fourteen syllables. The first four look like sonnet stanzas stretched over a slightly larger poetic frame as Knight uses a Petrarchan stateliness for a homely subject—the story of somebody nicknamed “Hard Rock” in prison. Exceptions are an initial metrically skewed couplet (“shit” and “it”) in the opening lines and a fourteen-syllable balanced couplet in lines 21 and 22 (“bit” and “spit”), which wire the poem with a blitz of “electricity” in an onomatopoeia that binds with rhyme the institutional violence and impersonally high-tech instruments used in the mental “gelding” of Hard Rock.

The principal image of the poem, Hard Rock, is an ambiguous sobriquet. One of the image’s meanings is the archetypal prison experience as old as the fates of the underclasses in ancient Egypt and Rome. “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane” also addresses heroic endurance, the first intoning, moreover, of four terrible invocations in the poem: “Hard Rock,” “WORD,” “Hole,” and “Destroyer,” one of Knight’s few concessions to textual effects.

Simultaneously, an essential counterpoint throughout the poem is the deliberate use of ironic comic detail that constructs a defiance and an anesthetic to the agony and grief in the poem: “A hillbilly called him a black son of a bitch/ And didn’t lose his teeth.” This humor is Knight’s testimony to how bravely people deal with an intractably helpless “status” and persist in hoping anyway. The humor Knight extracted from the print text of his poetry, when delivered in his intimately compassionate baritone voice, always summoned laughter from his audience. It would usually be followed by the momentary silence of audience respect when in a final stanza the message of the poem’s resolution was reached.