Etheridge Knight (April 19, 1931 – March 10, 1991) was an African-American poet who made his name in 1968 with his debut volume, Poems from Prison. The book recalls in verse his eight-year-long sentence after his arrest for robbery in 1960. By the time he left prison, Knight had prepared a second volume featuring his own writings and works of his fellow inmates. This second book, first published in Italy under the title Voce negre dal carcere, appeared in English in 1970 as Black Voices from Prison. These works established Knight as one of the major poets of the Black Arts Movement, which flourished from the early 1960s through the mid-1970s. With roots in the Civil Rights Movement, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, and the Black Power Movement, American artists within the movement sought to create politically engaged work that explored the African-American cultural and historical experience.
Knight is also considered an important poet in the mainstream American tradition. In his 2012 book Understanding Etheridge Knight, Michael S. Collins calls Knight "a mighty American poet....He and Wallace Stevens stand as 'two poles of American poetry,' according to his better-known fellow writer Robert Bly. Or, rather, Knight was, as he often said, a poet of the belly: a poet of the earth and of the body, a poet of the feelings from which cries and blood oaths and arias come, while Stevens was a poet, arguably, of the ache left in the intellect after it tears itself from God. 'Ideas are not the source of poetry,' Knight told one interviewer. 'For me it's passion and feeling....'"
Knight was born to a poor family in rural Corinth, Mississippi, but spent time growing up in Paducah, Kentucky, before his family moved to Indianapolis, Indiana. He was one of seven children. Although he was an extremely bright student, Knight decided to drop out of school at the age of 16. At such a young age, and in the era of legal segregation, his opportunities were limited. In his hometown, he could only find menial jobs such as shining shoes, and he spent much of his time at juke joints, pool halls, and underground poker games. Some have speculated that it might have been in this period that he began to experiment with drugs, desperation to buy which later led to the robbery that landed him in jail. In any case, in an attempt to find himself and a purpose in life, the teenaged Knight decided to join the U.S. Army in 1947. He served as a medic in the Korean War until he was discharged from service in 1951, after suffering from a shrapnel wound and tremendous psychological trauma. He told the Rocky Mountain News, "There was a whole lot of dying and blood. No 17-year-old is ready for that. So I started using morphine." Some have speculated that Knight was already an addict before his war experiences. But, as Collins reports, the Vietnam War veteran and poet Yousef Komunyakaa does not believe that Knight could have made it through basic training in the army if he had been in the grip of addictive drugs.
After his discharge from the Army he settled in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he picked up the art of telling toasts —traditional, black, oral narrative poems acted out in a theatrical manner. During this time, he maintained his dependence on heroin and other illegal drugs.
In 1960, Knight snatched an elderly woman’s purse in order to support his addiction, and was sentenced to serve a 10- to 25-year term in the Indiana State Prison. Enraged by his lengthy prison sentence, which he believed to be unjust and racist in nature, Knight, during his first year of prison became hostile and belligerent in his ways. However, in the following years of incarceration, he turned to books such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the poetry of Langston Hughes. Inspired by them, he redirected his embitterment into the writing of poetry so as to liberate his soul. By drawing from his experience in toasting, Knight developed his verse into a transcribed-oral poetry. By 1963, Knight began identifying himself as a poet. He also started establishing contacts with significant figures in the African-American literary community. These contacts included Gwendolyn Brooks, who visited him in prison and critiqued his work. The poems he had written during his time in prison were so effective that Dudley Randall, a poet and owner of Broadside Press, published Knight’s first volume of verse, Poems from Prison, and hailed Knight as one of the major poets of the Black Arts Movement. The book’s publication coincided with his release from prison. Other poets such as Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti, and Sonia Sanchez aided Knight in obtaining his parole in 1968.
Upon his release from prison in 1968, Knight married poet Sonia Sanchez. Over the next few years, he held the position of writer-in-residence at several universities, including two years, 1968 and 1969, spent at the University of Pittsburgh. While living in Pittsburgh with his wife and their family, Knight spent time as poetry editor for Motive magazine. As a result of his ongoing drug addiction, his marriage to Sanchez did not last long, and they were divorced in 1970 while still in Pittsburgh. He continued writing his third book, Belly Song and Other Poems, which was published in 1973. His third work incorporates new life experiences and attitudes about love and race, and Knight was praised for the work’s sincerity. Belly Song was nominated for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Knight’s time in Pennsylvania was very important to his career: his work during this period won him both a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1972 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974.
He married Mary McNally in 1972, and fathered her two children. They settled in Minneapolis, Minnesota, until they separated in 1977. He then resided in Memphis, Tennessee, where he received Methadone treatments. Knight rose from a life of poverty, crime, and drug addiction to become exactly what he expressed in his notebook in 1965: a voice that was heard and helped his people.
Knight continued to write throughout his post-prison life. Belly Song and Other Poems (1973) dealt with themes of racism and love. Knight believed the poet was a "meddler" or intermediary between the poem and the reader. He elaborated on this concept in his 1980 work Born of a Woman. The Essential Etheridge Knight (1986) is a compilation of his work.
In 1990, he earned a bachelor's degree in American poetry and criminal justice from Martin Center University in Indianapolis. Knight taught at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Hartford, and Lincoln University, before he was forced to stop working due to illness. He also continued to be known as a charismatic poetry reader. Knight died in Indianapolis, Indiana, of lung cancer on March 10, 1991.
Style and themes
Knight’s poetry uses Black vernacular and includes a number of haiku among its forms. Joyce Ann Joyce places Knight "in the context of an African philosophical/aesthetic tradition." His "tribute to the ancestors," she writes, "emerges as a ritualistic drama in which the values of the poet's ancestors are reborn, redefined, reaffirmed and reinterpreted, at once giving them added viability and sacralizing their new form." This ethnophilosophical perspective, she finds, "differs significantly from the Eurocentric concept of intertextuality that confines itself to reading texts only within the context of other texts.” Joyce calls him “a truly African oral performer," whose subjects "grew out of his and his people's lives" so that "viewed in the context of an African philosophical/aesthetic tradition, his poetry places him among those at the vanguard of any discussion of the history of African-American poetic letters."
His exploration of themes of freedom and imprisonment, including his tributes to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, are noted in a biographical study by Cassie Premo, who writes that his life and work dwell on "the theme of prisons imposed from without (slavery, racism, poverty, incarceration) and prisons from within (addiction, repetition of painful patterns) [which] are countered with the theme of freedom. His poems of suffering and survival, trial and tribute, loss and love testify to the fact that we are never completely imprisoned. Knight's poetry expresses our freedom of consciousness and attests to our capacity for connection to others.”
- Poems from Prison. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1968.
- 2 Poems for Black Relocation Centers, 1968.
- The Idea of Ancestry, 1968.
- Black Voices from Prison (with others). New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970.
- A Poem for Brother Man, 1972.
- For Black Poets Who Think of Suicide, 1972.
- Belly Song and Other Poems. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1973.
- Born of a Woman: New and Selected Poems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
- The Essential Etheridge Knight. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986.
- . Small collection of poems.