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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Etheridge Knight

Etheridge Knight was a black prison-born artist. Born in Corinth, Mississippi, in a large and relatively poor family of seven children, he was able to complete only a ninth grade education. Therefore, he discovered early in his life that his social and economic opportunities were limited. In Corinth, Knight found only menial jobs such as shining shoes available to him and, thus, spent much of his time hanging out in pool halls and barrooms. As a teenager, he turned to narcotics for what he felt would relieve him from his emotional anguish. Then, at sixteen, in his attempt to find a purpose in life, he enlisted in the army and later fought in the Korean War. During the war, Knight’s addiction increased when he was treated with narcotics for a shrapnel wound. After his discharge from the service, he drifted aimlessly for several years throughout the country until he eventually settled in Indianapolis, Indiana. During these years, he learned through his experiences in bars and pool halls the art of telling toasts—long narrative poems from the black oral tradition that are acted out in a theatrical manner. Unfortunately, however, his drug addiction, not toast-telling, dominated Knight’s life. In Indianapolis, he snatched an old white woman’s purse in order to support his addiction and was sentenced in 1960 to serve a ten- to twenty-five year term in Indiana State Prison.

Embittered by his lengthy prison sentence, which he felt was unjust and racist in nature, Knight became rebellious, hostile, and belligerent during his first year of incarceration. However, the Autobiography of Malcolm X and other prison works influenced him to turn to writing in order to liberate his soul. As Knight once stated: “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.”

By drawing from his early experiences as a teller of toasts, Knight developed his verse into a transcribed-oral poetry of considerable power. His earlier poems, “The Idea of Ancestry,” “The Violent Space,” “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane,” and “He Sees Through Stone,” were so effective that Broadside publisher-poet Dudley Randall published Knight’s first volume of verse, Poems From Prison, and hailed him as one of the major poets of the New Black Aesthetic. In addition, other poets such as Don L. Lee, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Sonia Sanchez aided Knight in obtaining his parole in 1968.

Upon his release from prison, Knight married Sonia Sanchez. However, because of his drug addiction, the marriage was short-lived. He then married Mary McNally and they adopted two children and settled in Minneapolis, Minnesota, until 1977. Three years later, Knight published his volume of poems Belly Songs and Other Poems. Separated from Mary in the late 1970s, Knight resided in Memphis, Tennessee, where he received methadone treatments. In 1980 he published Born of A Woman: New and Selected Poems and in 1986, The Essential Etheridge Knight. He died of lung cancer in March of 1991.

Knight’s poetry, much of it written in prison, ranges from expressions of loneliness and frustration to a sense of triumph over the soul’s struggle. In his earlier prison poetry, Knight brings us mercilessly and straight on face to face with the infinite varieties of pain and sorrow of the prison world until, finally, the total prison soul stands before us anatomized. We meet the lobotomized inmate “Hard Rock,” the raped convict Freckled-Faced Gerald, and the old black soothsayer lifer who “sees through stone” and waits patiently for the dawning of freedom. Above all, in “The Idea of Ancestry” and “The Violent Space,” the two most powerful of his prison poems, we witness the poet himself deep in despair, alone in the freedomless void of his prison cell. However, Knight’s best poems are his later ones, those that search for heritage, continuity, and meaning. In two of his post-prison poems, “The Bones of My Father,” which shows his growing concern for image rather than the statement, and his masterful blues poem, “A Poem for Myself (Or Blues for A Mississippi Black Boy),” Knight’s search takes him to the South, the ancestral home for blacks. Finally, in “Ilu, The Talking Drum,” one of the finest poems in contemporary American poetry, Knight brings the black American life experience back full circle from Africa to the black South and then back to an Africa of the spirit.

Patricia Liggins-Hill
University of San Francisco

In the Heath Anthology
The Idea of Ancestry (1968)
The Violent Space (or when your sister sleeps around for money) (1968)
A Poem for Myself (Or Blues for a Mississippi Black Boy) (1980)
Ilu, the Talking Drum (1980)

Other Works
Poems from Prison (1968)
Black Voices from Prison (1972)
Belly Song and Other Poems (1973)
Born of A Woman: New and Selected Poems (1980)
The Essential Etheridge Knight (1986)

Cultural Objects
   The Idea of Ancestry

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Etheridge Knight
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Modern American Poetry
Offers information about Knight's life and works, including criticism and contextual data.

The Academy of American Poets
Exhibit providing a biography, two poems, and a list of works.

Secondary Sources

Brigid Corbett, "Etheridge Knight: Reading a Poet,: Interlochen Review (Spring 1976): 104-108

Harvey Feinberg, "Poems from Prison: A Review," New American and Canadian Poetry No. 17 (December-January 1971):12-18

Patricia L. Hill, "'The Violent Space': An Interpretation of the New Black Aesthetic as Seen in Etheridge Knight's Poetry," Black American Literature Forum 14:3, (Fall 1980): 115-121, reprinted in Contemporary Literary Criticism (CLC), Vol. 40, ed. Daniel G. Marowski (1986): 219-286

Patricia L. Hill, "'Blues for a Mississippi Black Boy': Etheridge Knight's Craft in the Black Oral Tradition," Mississippi Quarterly Vol. XXXVI, No. 1 (Winter 1982-83): 21-34

Raymond Jaeger, "Dry Bones, Belly Song and Other Poems," Skywriting 11:3 (Winter 1975-76)

Art Powers, "The Prison Artist," An Eye for an Eye, eds. H. Jack Griswold, Mike Misenhower, Art Powers, et al., 1970: 95-97