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.)

Prison Poetry

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 748 words.)

The Junkie as Job

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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,...

(The entire section is 1022 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.