A Poetry of Intense Experience

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 634

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...

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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/ down!”

Etheridge Knight was born in 1931 in Corinth, Mississippi, one of seven children in a family with little means or opportunity. Finding himself limited by racism to a world of menial jobs, pool halls, barrooms, and narcotics (his poem dated June, 1981, “Once on a Night in the Delta: A Report from Hell,” suggests too little change in fifty years), Knight dropped out of school at fourteen and at sixteen joined the Army. Treatment for a shrapnel wound suffered in Korea increased his addiction to narcotics, and upon his discharge he became a wanderer by necessity as well as inclination, settling at first and then intermittently in Indianapolis, Indiana. There he was sentenced in 1960 to serve a term of ten to twenty-five years in the state penitentiary for having snatched an elderly white woman’s purse. Having begun his education, as he remarked, on the street corners in the oral tradition of African American blues and toasts, in prison Knight pursued an informal literary education, reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) and the poetry of Langston Hughes and other black poets, including Dudley Randall, Gwendolyn Brooks, Don L. Lee (Haki R. Madhubuti), and Sonia Sanchez. The latter poets helped him to gain publication of his own poems and earn his parole. He also informed himself eclectically in the canon of Anglo-American poetry and in Greek, Latin, Chinese, and Japanese poetry in translation, especially haiku, a form that he adapted to expression of his blues-and jazz-oriented vision.

In the mid-1970’s, as he met many of his white contemporaries in poetry, Knight read their work, especially that of those with whom he became close friends, including Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, and James Wright. He had not emerged from prison free from his habitual abuse of alcohol and other chemicals, however, and during the remainder of his life he frequently committed himself to Veterans’ Administration hospitals for treatment, which he experienced as unavoidable self-incarceration. He was married to Sonia Sanchez, Mary McAnally, and Charlene Blackburn, living with his family or alone in cities in Minnesota, Missouri, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, and often in Indianapolis, where he died of lung cancer in 1991.

Prison Poetry

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Just as Knight began his writing of poetry in prison, so it appears that in prison his essential purpose as a poet crystallized. Prison, as described in his poems, is a place of unavoidable realism about common human conditions and fate: injustice, deprivation, loneliness, fear and despair, sterility, violence, and death. It is, moreover, preeminently the place of racist and fascist oppression. Thereby, however, it becomes for some a place of truth, brotherhood, heroism, self-discovery and clarification of values, dedication, and finally a place where liberating expression is born and even where love persists and is strengthened. Knight learned from Malcolm X what many slaves had learned, that reading and writing free the soul, and sometimes the body. In his process of becoming an imprisoned writer, “prison” became a central image and metaphor in his poetry, and his essential purpose became liberation, of himself, his readers, humanity. The central image of that purpose is poetry itself—poetry that never attacked or betrayed him and whose creation never let him down but came forth to save him again and again.

At its purest, in Knight’s vision, poetry takes the form of free singing, and anyone is capable of it. In “On the Projects Playground,” a boy declares himself a poet, and Knight completely agrees. In another instance, the “dead world dying” is “reborn” in the words “green grass and yellow balloons” sung in the rain by Alexandria Keller, “poet at four.” The sea of life force rose higher in Knight at such moments, so that in the face of adversity and oppression he could celebrate, as in one of his love poems: “We free singers be, baby!/ We free singers be.” The lines suggest the interpretation that people are free when expressive love is unrestricted by racists or fascists or their conventions of behavior, and those who are free singers are wholly alive and (to borrow from an essay by Sonia Sanchez) positively and actively themselves.

“It is hard/ To make a poem in prison,” Knight writes. Indeed, it would seem that the condition of imprisonment would make poetry, free singing, impossible. A third central image in Knight’s poetry, love, makes poetry possible, however, even as a desire to sing prepares one for love. Love poems, or poems about love relationships, make up a large portion of Knight’s poetry. The love may be compassionate, familial, friendly, or sexual. Often in the poems it comes to the male poet-prisoner in the person of a woman—a WASP woman visiting “the least of these” (a black junkie), a poet friend, a lover. In each case, she frees his spirit, for a time, for “our time,” love’s time, from oppression, desperation, or restrictive conventionality. Walls dissolve, or are seen through, but she does not free him from addiction.

Readers meet in Knight’s poems many of the women who were singers in his life. Few readers would meet even one of these women in life; yet at the time of publication, at least, the women in the poems were as alive and real as were the readers, somewhere in America. If it is one of the charms, perhaps it is also one of the chagrins of reading Knight’s love poems that in them he presents persons—women, in a sexist society (in the 1980’s Knight was growing in awareness of sexism)—in intimate relation with him, and readers know from the poems themselves that the relationships broke, painfully for these women, and knows that the suffering women presented have been viewed only through the eyes of the poet. If Knight looked ahead to the coming of a loving woman, he also looked back at his causing one to leave—for example, he sings in the blues of “Belly Song” about “the yesterdays/ when she opened/ to me like a flower/ But I fell on her like a stone/ I fell on her like a stone.” So in the addictive cycle of hope and despair, love too can be a kind of addiction, as can the most selfless junkie’s inevitable preoccupation with self in quest for the fix and high. Yesterday’s high is yesterday. “Every goodby ain’t gone,” but neither is it “hello,” and neither is it “stay.” There are many dark and rainy streets in Knight’s poetry; it seems an act of both embracive love and desperate rejection when, in his haiku, “Harlem,” he calls the “streetwalking woman” the “sister of my soul.”

The Junkie as Job

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In prison, Knight began to see a great truth that deepened his images, the ambiguity and ambivalence of all imaginations of life. An eternal high would simply “back-flip” to an eternal low. His epigraphs to Born of a Woman suggest that he felt himself to be a Job, patiently questioning the injustices of a destructive arbitrary Power, but also that his insistence upon facing the truth was fated and legitimated by his being a junkie. The junkie, if not Job, could see that what appeared to be injustices actually were unjust. In “Genesis,” prefatory to The Essential Etheridge Knight, he warns that the shape of his poems is the snake’s. Like a snake in the grass, these poems might strike a parental Achilles or Eurydicean heel, Or, like a snake under a rock, they might slough off their wrinkled skin to emerge renewed. In a widely quoted statement about his life, Knight said, “I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound and narcotics resurrected me. I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life.”

Perhaps the essential, patterning rhythm of Knight’s poetry, taken as a whole, is the cycle of deaths and renewals—itself ambiguous, since it is a release and a trap. In the poem, the poles of the cycle take various forms: highs and lows, caged or free, loving but leaving, flowing or dammed, empty or full, not enough or too much. A hero appears and is killed, innocence is destroyed, family is torn or reunited, race or class alienation is bridged by a common feeling or word. The poles can exist simultaneously, as when a loving couple hurries home through an oppressive society, or when Knight watches three days of labor pains and then the welcome birth of a black boy in the land of the Ku Klux Klan. In an early poem, Knight insisted that suicidal black poets should choose life; but in the next-to-last poem of The Essential Etheridge Knight, his praise song for a young black poet includes an understanding acceptance of his suicide and an affectionate release. The book then closes with the prose poem “Rehabilitation & Treatment in the Prisons of America,” the final sentence of which tells readers, “He was black, so he rushed—ran—through that door—and fell nine stories to the street.” The person whom readers hear speaking to them through the poems was a desperate victim of American racism, an addict, a lover, an African American singer of the worst and best of common humanity, who in singing was sometimes set free. As he said, his poems love their readers; and to read them well, readers must split their old snake skin with the rock of love.

While Knight was in prison, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X rose to prominence among black leaders. The special danger posed by Malcolm X was realized early, and he was assassinated first, but not before his speeches, television appearances, and autobiography gave power to the Black Arts movement and black aesthetic. As Knight wrote in one of his poems about Malcolm: “You reached the wild guys/ Like me. You and Bird. (And that/ Lil LeRoi Cat.)” Malcolm X had addressed exclusively black audiences, not caring whether whites listened or what they thought, but fearlessly and articulately “telling it like it is” and demonstrating the liberating power of words spoken with scrupulous honesty, accuracy, and eloquence. LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and many other black authors, like the men and women of words in the generations of slavery, saw that black writers could and should be doers, liberating black audiences by empowering them with African American images of the true, beautiful, and good, arming them with heroic models from their own history, and calling them to spiritual cohesion in building free and healthful black communities, in which artists would serve the people just as would plumbers and doctors. In that sense, Knight had been a black artist within the oral tradition.

As a writing poet, and eventually one with a large white as well as black audience, Knight continued to consider himself a blues and jazz lyricist, even when experimenting (often very effectively) with Anglo and Japanese lyrical forms; and at readings he would always “say,” not read, his poems. His audience was any person who could hear, could feel, what he was saying; he believed that being white did not qualify or disqualify a person to love and be loved, suffer, and seek to sing. In many cities, he offered Free People’s Poetry Workshops, at which persons of any color were welcome. Still, it was always clear when he “said” a poem, and is clear to alert readers, that the person speaking in the poem is black, telling it like it is in black experience, and telling it in a black way.

In almost every one of Knight’s poems there is a prompt, large or small, that the speaking voice is an African American voice. It might be the content, for example praising a black hero and lamenting his destruction (and as the title, “A Poem of Attrition” suggests, even the accidental drowning of a black boy is remembered by Knight as the loss of a potential heroic black man). It might be a touch of standard black diction, grammar, or pronunciation, or a phrase from a song that whites rarely sing or would not hear the same, or the naming of a color with a magical history, like purple (plums and gums). It might be a jazz rhythm or a blues repetition with a telling variation, or the sudden signifying rhythms of an internal rhyme: “me” rhymed with “O.D.” in a poem about recovery, for example. The poet might be functioning as a griot for his family or the black community or be keeping alive the tradition of black prophecy (“meddling”). “For Black Poets,” he wrote, “belong to Black People.” They are the “Flutes of Black Lovers . . . Organs of Black Sorrows . . . Trumpets of Black Warriors.”

Let all Black Poets die as Trumpets,And be buried in the dust of marching feet.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 228

Hill, Patricia Liggins. “’Blues for a Mississippi Black Boy’: Etheridge Knight’s Craft in the Black Oral Tradition.” Mississippi Quarterly 36, no. 1 (Winter, 1982-1983): 21-33. Examines Knight’s uses of blues and other traditional, African American musical and poetic forms.

Hill, Patricia Liggins. “’The Violent Space’: The Function of the New Black Aesthetic in Etheridge Knight’s Prison Poetry.” Black American Literature Forum 14, no. 3 (Fall, 1980): 115-121. Asserts that while in prison, Knight learned to identify with the lives of other African Americans and thereby began writing a poetry that liberates the consciousness of his readers.

Knight, Etheridge. Interview by Steven C. Tracy. MELUS 12, no. 2 (Summer, 1985): 7-23. Knight discusses the importance of the oral tradition, poetry by women, the appeal of poetry to the individual spirit of freedom, and the trinity of poet, poem, and people.

Nelson, Howard. “Belly Songs: The Poetry of Etheridge Knight.” The Hollins Critic 18, no. 5 (December, 1981): 1-11. Argues that the compelling theme in Knight’s poetry is human relationships. His major poetic device is the use of sound, especially in the immediacy of the spoken voice.

Neville, Susan. Sailing the Inland Sea: On Writing, Literature, and Land. Bloomington: Quarry Books/Indiana University Press, 2007. Discusses the function of place within Knight’s work and his representation of freedom.

Pinckney, Darryl. “You’re in the Army Now.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 9, no. 1 (1981): 306-314. Criticizes Knight’s “funky” style.

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