Today, April 19, is the anniversary of the birth of Etheridge Knight.
At 16, Etheridge Knight enlisted in the U.S. Army to serve in the Korean War. He returned home three years later severely wounded by shrapnel, traumatized by his wartime experiences, and with a morphine addiction that led to heroin, crime, and imprisonment.
Etheridge Knight was convicted of robbery in 1960 and served eight years in the Indiana State Prison.
He began writing poetry in prison. And he wrote, and he wrote, and he wrote...
"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."
Etheridge Knight summed up his life in those two sentences which appeared on the back cover of his first collection, Poems from Prison, which was published upon his release in 1968. He also edited an anthology, Black Voices from Prison, which was published in 1970 and included more of his poetry alongside works by his fellow inmates. These two volumes launched a stellar literary career which yielded four more collections and anthologies. Etheridge Knight became one of the leading lights of the Black Arts movement which followed and continued the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance and — as his biographer Michael S. Collins puts it — became “a mighty American poet”.
These are the bare bones of Etheridge Knight's life - the best account of his life and works is available in Understanding Etheridge Knight by Michael S. Collins. An excellent online summary of his legacy and influence is available in the essay, “No Square Poet’s Job” by Tony Rehagen on the Poetry Foundation website.
And now, a small (very small) sample of Etheridge Knight's work:
Eastern guard tower
glints in sunset; convicts rest
like lizards on rocks.
The piano man
is stingy, at 3 A.M.
his songs drop like plums.
Morning sun slants cell.
Drunks stagger like cripple flies
On jailhouse floor.
To write a blues song
is to regiment riots
and pluck gems from graves.
A bare pecan tree
slips a pencil shadow down
a moonlit snow slope.
The falling snow flakes
Cannot blunt the hard aches nor
Match the steel stillness.
Under moon shadows
A tall boy flashes knife and
Slices star bright ice.
In the August grass
Struck by the last rays of sun
The cracked teacup screams.
Making jazz swing in
Seventeen syllables AIN’T
No square poet’s job.
“FEELING FUCKED UP”
Lord she’s gone done left me
done packed up and split and I with no way to make her
come back and everywhere the world is bare
bright bone white crystal sand glistens
dope death dead dying and jiving drove
her away made her take her laughter and her smiles
and her softness and her midnight sighs—
Fuck Coltrane and music and clouds drifting in the sky
fuck the sea and trees and the sky and birds
and alligators and all the animals that roam the earth
fuck marx and mao fuck fidel and nkrumah and
democracy and communism fuck smack and pot
and red ripe tomatoes fuck joseph fuck mary fuck
god jesus and all the disciples fuck fanon nixon
and malcolm fuck the revolution fuck freedom fuck
the whole muthafucking thing
all i want now is my woman back
so my soul can sing
Once upon a today and yesterday and nevermore there were 7 men and women all locked up in prison cells. Now these 7 men and women were innocent of any crimes; they were in prison because their skins were black. Day after day, the prisoners paced their cells, pining for their freedom. And the non-black jailers would
laugh at the prisoners and beat them with sticks and throw their food on the floor.
Finally, prisoner #1 said, "I will educate myself and emulate the non-colored people. That is the way to freedom — c’mon, you guys, and follow me."
"Hell, no," said prisoner #2. "The only way to get free is to pray to my god and he will deliver you like he delivered Daniel from the lion’s den, so unite and follow me."
"Bullshit," said prisoner #3. "The only way out is thru this tunnel I’ve been quietly digging, so c’mon, and follow me."
"Uh-uh," said prisoner #4, "that’s too risky. The only right way is to follow all the rules and don’t make the non-colored people angry, so c’mon brothers and sisters and unite behind me."
"Fuck you!" said prisoner #5, "The only way out is to shoot our way out, if all of you get together behind me."
"No," said prisoner #6, "all of you are incorrect; you have not analyzed the political situation by my scientific method and historical meemeejeebee. All we have to do is wait long enough and the bars will bend from their own inner rot. That is the only way."
"Are all of you crazy," cried prisoner #7. "I’ll get out by myself, by ratting on the rest of you to the non-colored people. That is the way, that is the only way!"
"No-no," they all cried, "come and follow me. I have the way, the only way to freedom."
And so they argued, and to this day they are still arguing; and to this day they are still in their prison cells, their stomachs trembling with fear.
“THE SUN CAME”
The sun came, Miss Brooks, —
After all the night years.
He came spitting fire from his lips.
And we flipped — We goofed the whole thing.
It looks like our ears were not equipped
For the fierce hammering.
And now the Sun has gone, has bled red,
Weeping behind the hills.
Again the night shadows form.
But beneath the placid face a storm rages.
The rays of Red have pierced the deep, have struck
The core. We cannot sleep.
The shadows sing: Malcolm, Malcolm, Malcolm.
The darkness ain't like before.
The Sun came, Miss Brooks.
And we goofed the whole thing.
(Though ain't no vision visited my cell.)
[Etheridge Knight's answer to the opening of the poem "Truth" by Gwendolyn Brooks:
"And if sun comes
How shall we greet him?
Shall we not dread him,
Shall we not fear him
After so lengthy a
Session with shade?"]
These selections of Etheridge Knight's work are from The Essential Etheridge Knight (Pitt Poetry Series) by Etheridge Knight, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986.