Knight, Etheridge 1931–1991
Etheridge Knight 1931–1991
“This poetry is a major announcement,” poet Gwendolyn Brooks, wrote of Etheridge Knight’s in the preface to his first volume of poetry, Poems from Prison. Knight’s book was published in 1968 by Broadside Press while the author served out a sentence in Indiana State Prison. Although he was in prison, Knight’s voice was heard on the outside; black critics and writers acclaimed his poetry as another good example of the powerful truth of blackness in art that the Black Arts Movement, then reaching its height of influence, was promoting. After Knight got out of jail he continued writing, and his poetry became important both to African-American poetry and to the branch of Anglo-American poetry following in the tradition of Walt Whitman.
Knight’s poems described prison and the desire for freedom, being male, and the oppression of blacks and the underprivileged. As his work continued into the 1980s he absorbed more African-American, Anglo-American, European, and African literary traditions into a body of work capable of making a connection with black and white readers alike. Knight has earned both Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award nominations for his book Belly Song and Other Poems (1973) and won the praise of such well-known poets as Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Bly, and Galway Kinnell. Knight enjoyed his greatest success among critics with the publication of Born of a Woman in 1980. He won the 1987 American Book Award for his final collection of poems, The Essential Etheridge Knight.
Etheridge Knight was born in Corinth, Mississippi, on April 19, 1931, to Etheridge “Bushie” and Belzora (Cozart) Knight. He grew up in Paducah, Kentucky, with two brothers and four sisters. There are several accounts of his rough childhood but all of them agree that he dropped out of high school, hung around pool halls, bars, and juke joints, and went off to join the Army, where he served as a medical technician from 1947 to 1951. He fought in Korea where he was wounded by shrapnel. After serving in a non-combat capacity in Guam and Hawaii he returned home in psychological distress over his shrapnel wound, which drove him to take drugs and eventually to commit a robbery to support his habit. The crime landed him in prison from 1960 to 1968. He had a drug problem for much of his life.
Before he got to prison Knight was an experienced reciter of “toasts”—long, memorized narrative poems, often in rhymed couplets—and he perfected his expertise in this traditional spoken African-American art form while inside prison. “Toasts” enabled Knight to tell of sexual exploits, drug activities, and violent conflicts among a group of known folk figures, using street lingo, drug terms, prison idioms, and obscenities. Toast-telling brought Knight together with others, and the poetry also gave him an identity and an understanding of what poetry could do. By 1963 Knight was already writing poetry for publication and by 1965 he knew what he wanted to do in life.
Despite the suppression of all things creative in prison, Knight developed outside contacts with black poets,
At a Glance…
Born on April 19, 1931, in Corinth, MS; died of lung cancer on March 10, 1991, in Indianapolis, IN; son of Bushie and Belzora (Cozart) Knight; married Sonia Sanchez (divorced); married Mary Ann McAnally, 1973 (divorced); married Charlene Blackburn; children: (second marriage) Mary Tandiwe, Etheridge Bambata; (third marriage) Isaac Bushie; (stepchildren) Morani Sanchez, Mongou Sanchez, Anita Sanchez. Education: Martin Center University, Bachelor of Arts, criminal justice, 1990.
Career: Poet. Writer-in-residence, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, 1968-69, University of Hartford, Hartford, CT, 1969-70, and Lincoln University, Jefferson City, MO, 1972; contributor of poems and articles to many magazines and journals, including Black Digest, Essence, Motive, American Report, and American Poetry; Motive, poetry editor, 1969-71; New Let-ters, contributing editor, 1974.
Awards: National Endowment for the Arts grants, 1972 and 1980; National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize nominations, both for Belly Song and Other Poems, 1973; Self-Development Through the Arts grant, for local workshops, 1974; Guggenheim fellowship, 1974; American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, for The Essential Etheridge Knight, 1987.
writers, and publishers, particularly poets Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, and Dudley Randall. Randall’s small black press, Broadside Press, published Knight’s first book of poems, Poems from Prison, in 1968. The poems in the volume are described in Gwendolyn Brooks’s preface to the book, in which she wrote, “The poems recreate the conditions that black males experience, especially in prison….[They] also give pictures of the heroes who emerge from this literal metaphor for the oppression that all blacks suffer; black men like Malcolm X and Hard Rock are heroes because they bring freedom and hope to others living in harsh conditions even if they themselves are destroyed.”
“The Idea of Ancestry” from Poems from Prison has been the most praised and the most often anthologized poem from the collection. It has been viewed as one of the best works written about the African-American conception of family history and human interconnectedness. In this poem Knight uses what came to be his signature style: slash marks, commas, colons, unusual spellings, and spacing of words to show how the voice should sound saying the lines. He also combined the vocabulary of the drug culture, black slang, and concrete images to make ancestry come alive in the poem.
Much of Knight’s prison poetry, according to Patricia Liggins Hill in Black American Literature Forum, focuses on imprisonment as a form of contemporary enslavement and looks for ways in which one can be free despite incarceration. Time and space are significant in the concept of imprisonment, and Hill commented that “specifically, what Knight relies on for his prison poetry are various temporal/spacial elements which allow him to merge his personal consciousness with the consciousness of Black people.” Hill maintained that this merging of consciousness “sets him apart from the other new Black poets… [who] see themselves as poets/priests… Knight sees himself as being one with Black people.”
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Knight’s poetry was iauded in print primarily by African-American critics and poets like Gwendolyn Brooks and Haki Madhubuti (then Don L. Lee), who praised Knight’s incorporation of typically black themes such as ancestry and the destruction of the black man by the system, and his creative use of punctuation, rhythm, and images to create a musical, oral effect in his poetry. After getting out of prison, Knight married Sonia Sanchez and adopted her children. Throughout his life Knight experienced problems with women, and would marry several times.
From 1969 to 1972 Knight lived in freedom as a black poet and held several university positions. He was writer-in-residence at the University of Pittsburgh, and later at the University of Hartford and at Lincoln University in Missouri. Besides being a poet and a teacher, Knight also edited poetry for a magazine titled Motive. Knowledge of his work soon spread, and he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1972 and a Guggenheim Fellowship two years later.
In 1973 he divorced Sonia Sanchez and married Mary Ann McAnally, with whom he had two children. That year Broadside Press published a new book of his poems, Belly Song and Other Poems. Knight believed that the root of human feeling is in the belly, where a person initially feels fear, love, joy and pain, and the poetry in the volume describes a variety of such feelings. At the heart of this compilation is Knight’s written version of a toast he had learned, titled “Dark Prophecy: I Sing of Shine,” about how a black stoker aboard the Titanic saves himself when the ship goes down, resisting all the coaxings of the bigoted world which despises him. In this collection Knight also wrote of ancestors; he experimented with rhythm and uses his own autobiographical material. He celebrated love and the pain of lost love, using his characteristic repetition, spaced lining, slash marks, and punctuation. The love poems are full of images of sexual love, of water, of nature, and celebrate the joining together of a man and woman. This joy contrasts sharply with the bleak, empty world of loss and the death of love. This collection also contains poems which speak of political freedom, freedom from racism, and prison.
In 1980 Houghton Mifflin published another collection of his poems, titled Born of a Woman, which was made up of previously published poems as well as unpublished new work. The work contains poems which portray pain and evil as well as those which affirm life, including “The Stretching of the Belly,” which is dedicated to Knight’s third wife, Charlene, and celebrates the giving of birth. In another poem Knight tells of the birth of a black baby boy and the type of milieu he will live in. He ends the volume with “Con/tin/u/way/shun Blues,” a poem in which the autobiographical “I” becomes the bluesy voice of a troubled community. In the years before the publication of this volume, Knight lived in Memphis, Tennessee, conducting poetry workshops and collecting toasts for publication by the Center for Southern Folklore.
In 1986 Knight brought out his last volume of poetry, The Essential Etheridge Knight. In addition to working as a poet, Knight continued his education. In 1990 he earned a bachelor’s degree in American poetry and criminal justice from Martin Center University in Indianapolis, Indiana. Knight died of lung cancer on March 10, 1991, in Indianapolis, and left behind unpublished poems filled with descriptions of sorrow, loneliness, dissatisfaction, and triumph.
(Contributor) For Malcolm, Broadside Press, 1967.
Poems from Prison, preface by Gwendolyn Brooks, Broadside Press, 1968.
(With others) Voce Negre dal Carcere (anthology), [Laterza, Italy], 1968, original English edition published as Black Voices from Prison, introduction by Roberto Giammanco, Pathfinder Press, 1970.
A Poem for Brother/Man (after His Recovery from an O.D.), Broadside Press, 1972.
Belly Song and Other Poems, Broadside Press, 1973.
Born of a Woman: New and Selected Poems, Hough-ton Mifflin, 1980.
The Essential Etheridge Knight, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986.
Work represented in many anthologies, including Norton Anthology of American Poets, Black Poets, A Broadside Treasury, Broadside Poet, and A Comprehensive Anthology of Black Poets.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 41: Afro-American Poets Since 1955, Gale, 1985, pp. 202-211.
Discovering Authors, Gale, 1999.
New Bones: Contemporary Black Writers in America, Prentice Hall, 1995, Chapter 45.
Poems from Prison, Broadside Press, 1968, preface and p. 11.
The Essential Etheridge Knight, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986.
Black American Literature Forum, Summer 1981, pp. 77-79.
Etheridge Knight, The Academy of American Poets, 1997.
Etheridge Knight, The Academy of American Poets, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale Group, 2001, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/GLD/
—Alison Carb Sussman
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