The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Idea of Ancestry” is a forty-two-line poem in free verse divided into two parts of three and two stanzas, respectively. The title names the subject of the poem—the poet’s connection to his family, his birthplace, and his culture. The poem is written in the autobiographical, first-person voice of Knight. In stanza 1 of part 1, the poet describes his cell in prison, the walls covered with “47” photographs of his relatives. He reclines on his bunk and contemplates the pictures, imagining they are alive and looking at him. Pointedly, he reflects that he shares identities with them: “I am all of them, they are all of me.” He ends the reflection and the stanza with a statement that presents a radical shift in point of view: “They are thee.” “Thee” addresses all the poem’s readers, indeed all of humanity.

In stanza 2, the poet inventories the twelve relatives he has been “in love” with, starting with his mother and ending with a seven-year-old niece who sends him letters in prison. One of the aunts he loved went into an asylum. It is not clear if all these relatives are female. In stanza 3, the poet gives an inventory of his male relatives, especially those with whom he shares the same name. He considers, in particular, a fugitive uncle who has, since age fifteen, been conspicuous by his absence. This uncle is missed each year by the family at its reunions, particularly by the poet’s ninety-three-year-old grandmother (“my...

(The entire section is 489 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Knight’s poetry is essentially oral. His own voice was a baritone warble, full of water and passion, exactly right for the poetic diction he created. His poems are rich with single-syllable words, and “The Idea of Ancestry” is no exception. Monosyllabic words outnumber polysyllabic words by over four to one through the first four stanzas, an effect that is multiplied until the proportion is ten to one in the final stanza. Monosyllabic words arrest rhythm and are the discourse of the arrested time of the imprisoned poet who is forbidden participation in the flow of his “birthstream”—and thus in history, wherein “ancestry” occurs. The poem’s grammar and punctuation are resolutely simple: The poem’s lines do not begin with capitalized words; integer numbers—1, 2, and 3, for example—are not spelled out; and words such as “yr,” “1st,” and “2nd” are adopted, though “year” is also used. Notably, after its use as the principal word in the title, “ancestry” is not among the words used in the poem. Meanwhile, additional oral characteristics of the poem are in keeping with its elemental and emotionally simple meaning. For example, memorized inventories of the contents of one’s life are typical of oral culture, and certain kinds of oral poetry are designed to collect and remember the personalities of family members. The poem also inventories the poet’s personal experience. He has forty-seven photographs of forty-seven relatives,...

(The entire section is 524 words.)