Etheridge Knight: Drugs, Prison, Haiku
Knight reading his "Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane"
Born April 19, 1931, in Corinth, Mississippi, Knight joined the Army in 1947. He served in Korea, where he suffered shrapnel wounds. He was discharged in 1957. Knight’s poems speak to the human ability to transcend to freedom from the prisons of the material as well as the mental levels of being. After his discharge from the Army, Knight became addicted to drugs, and to feed his addiction, he turned to robbery. He spent eight years in prison after robbing an elderly woman.
In prison, Knight was afforded the time and space to explore poetry. He found that he had a talent for versifying, and he learned that the real prison was in the human heart and mind. Following his talent allowed him to understand that it is inner, not outer, circumstances that account for and allow freedom. Knight's first book of poem was titled Poems from Prison and was published by Dudley Randell. One of his most widely anthologized poems is “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane,” which tells a tale about an uncompromising character called “Hard Rock”:
Hard Rock was "known not to take no shit
From nobody," and he had the scars to prove it:
Split purple lips, lumped ears, welts above
His yellow eyes, and one long scar that cut
Across his temple and plowed through a thick
Canopy of kinky hair.
The poem delivers a psychological perspective on the inmates who wait for the return of the lobotomized Hard Rock, and they are sorely served when they discover the worst: Hard Rock’s pluck has been plucked out of him.
Gwendolyn Brooks, who suggested to Knight that his poetry was sometimes too wordy, urged him to try writing haiku. He took her up on the suggestion. One of his best and funniest is the following:
Making jazz swing in
Seventeen syllables AIN'T
No square poet's job.
Other Knight Haiku: Prison Inspired
Eastern guard tower
glints in sunset; convicts rest
like lizards on rocks.
Morning sun slants cell.
Drunks stagger like cripple flies
On jailhouse floor.
More Knight Haiku: Non-prison Inspired
A bare pecan tree
slips a pencil shadow down
a moonlit snow slope.
To write a blues song
is to regiment riots
and pluck gems from graves.
Knight's Haiku Skill
About Knight’s haiku skill, critic Joyce Ann Joyce writes: “Using this brief form that demanded precision to hone his skill, Knight produced poetry that was humorous, urbane or sophisticated, colloquial, historical, political, musical, rhythmical, and spiritual.”
Gwendolyn Brooks' sage advice served Knight well. His poems took on an incisive and authentic voice as he gained not only skill in composing haiku but even his longer narrative works.
Knight became especially adept at writing in the Black vernacular voice, and his poetry readings never failed to entertain and delight audiences that flocked to his readings.
Honored for His Poetry
Etheridge Knight’s poetry has been honored by the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Poetry Society of America, and many others.
Knight taught creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Hartford, and Lincoln University. He completed a bachelor’s degree in American poetry and criminal justice at Martin University in Indianapolis in 1990 but sadly died of lung cancer the following year.
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes