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”1Eastern guard towerglints in sunset; convicts restlike lizards on rocks.
2The piano manis stingy, at 3 A.M.his songs drop like plum.3Morning sun slants cell.Drunks stagger like cripple fliesOn jailhouse floor.4To write a blues songis to regiment riotsand pluck gems from graves.5A bare pecan treeslips a pencil shadow downa moonlit snow slope.6The falling snow flakesCannot blunt the hard aches norMatch the steel stillness.7Under moon shadowsA tall boy flashes knife andSlices star bright ice.8In the August grassStruck by the last rays of sunThe cracked teacup screams.9Making jazz swing inSeventeen syllables AIN’TNo square poet’s job.
“The Bones of My Father”1There are no dry boneshere in this valley. The skullof my father grinsat the Mississippi moonfrom the bottomof the Tallahatchie,the bones of my fatherare buried in the mudof these creeks and brooks that twistand flow their secrets to the sea.but the wind sings to mehere the sun speaks to meof the dry bones of my father.2There are no dry bonesin the northern valleys, in the Harlem alleysyoung / black / men with knees bentnod on the stoops of the tenementsand dreamof the dry bones of my father.And young white longhairs who fleetheir homes, and bend their mindsand sing their songs of brotherhoodand no more wars are searching formy father’s bones.3There 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 cagesthat kept us. We glide sidewayslike crabs across the sand.We perch on green lilies, we searchbeneath white rocks…THERE ARE NO DRY BONES HEREThe skull of my fathergrins at the Mississippi moonfrom the bottomof the Tallahatchie.
“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.