National Poetry Month, day 29: Etheridge Knight

Poet Ethridge Knight. Image from DailyKos.com

Etheridge Knight was a Black poet who lived 1931-1991. His rise to poetic prominence came via a book of poems he wrote while incarcerated for robbery, Poems from Prison. This ended up being a theme in Knight’s work, as he produced another collection called Black Voices from Prison, in which he collected his own works plus works from others. Knight was born April 19, which makes this his birth-month; in nine years we will reach his centennial.

I found Knight’s work via selections in a recent book acquisition, the Library of America’s African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song. The work of Knight’s that is featured in that book spotlight hard, almost harsh rhythms in the verse; these are poems that challenge one to speak them aloud and hear the pain inherent in the American Black experience and the fact that for many in that community, the reality is a carceral state that is inherently punitive in ways that white people simply don’t experience.

I sometimes wonder if white people look at people like Etheridge Knight and use their examples to reinforce the wrong conclusions: “See, if you do your time and then work hard, look at what you can accomplish!” and all that sort of thing. We don’t take nearly enough account of having made a world where the feelings that Etheridge Knight, and so many others, end up expressing should be experienced by anyone at all.

Here are two poems by Etheridge Knight.

“Haiku”
1
Eastern guard tower
glints in sunset; convicts rest
like lizards on rocks.

2

The piano man
is stingy, at 3 A.M.
his songs drop like plum.

3
Morning sun slants cell.
Drunks stagger like cripple flies
On jailhouse floor.

4
To write a blues song
is to regiment riots
and pluck gems from graves.

5
A bare pecan tree
slips a pencil shadow down
a moonlit snow slope.

6
The falling snow flakes
Cannot blunt the hard aches nor
Match the steel stillness.

7
Under moon shadows
A tall boy flashes knife and
Slices star bright ice.

8
In the August grass
Struck by the last rays of sun
The cracked teacup screams.

9
Making jazz swing in
Seventeen syllables AIN’T
No square poet’s job.

“The Bones of My Father”
1
There are no dry bones
here in this valley. The skull
of my father grins
at the Mississippi moon
from the bottom
of the Tallahatchie,
the bones of my father
are buried in the mud
of these creeks and brooks that twist
and flow their secrets to the sea.
but the wind sings to me
here the sun speaks to me
of the dry bones of my father.

      2
There are no dry bones
in the northern valleys, in the Harlem alleys
young / black / men with knees bent
nod on the stoops of the tenements
and dream
of the dry bones of my father.

And young white longhairs who flee
their homes, and bend their minds
and sing their songs of brotherhood
and no more wars are searching for
my father’s bones.

      3
There are no dry bones here.
We hide from the sun.
No more do we take the long straight strides.
Our steps have been shaped by the cages
that kept us. We glide sideways
like crabs across the sand.
We perch on green lilies, we search
beneath white rocks…
THERE ARE NO DRY BONES HERE

The skull of my father
grins at the Mississippi moon
from the bottom
of the Tallahatchie.

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1 Response to National Poetry Month, day 29: Etheridge Knight

  1. Roger says:

    “I sometimes wonder if white people look at people like Etheridge Knight and use their examples to reinforce the wrong conclusions.” What you said. And it takes white people to point that out, and way more often.

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