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.)