A Poetry of Intense Experience

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

There is so much desperation and so much love, so much of death and so much creation in the poetry of Etheridge Knight, as in his life, that reading a collection of his poems can be a delightful and an agonizing experience. People who met him saw that he truly wanted to see them and that he offered his feelings immediately and without reserve, evasion, or disguise. He did so because such an offering and request for reciprocal response were essential to his personality, vision, and struggle to make life and poetry meaningful enough to be worth maintaining. The cost of that maintenance, like its reward, could be very dear (and indeed the poet often lived in or near poverty).

The honest and open expression of feelings, always in good will and good faith, was the program of Knight’s art, and its purpose was to enact his highest and indispensable value: freedom, for himself and all others. In person and in poetry, Knight tried always to present himself as an expressive model of the free, loving self; but the forces of oppression and constriction appear to have dominated his early life to such an extent that by the time he was an adult and a celebrated poet, the joy of freedom alternated regularly—often day by day—with the desperation of the sprung trap and the cage. Finally, as he said in several poems, his most pervasive problem lay in himself, his addictions that rivaled his enemies, racism and fascism, in their ability to distort and destroy both love and freedom. As he said in a poem about a loved one, “My ’highs’ drove her/...

(The entire section is 634 words.)