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Etheridge Knight: Drugs, Prison, Haiku

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Etheridge Knight

Etheridge Knight

Knight reading his "Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane"

Introduction: From Prison to Poetry

Born April 19, 1931, in Corinth, Mississippi, to son of Etheridge "Bushie" Knight and Belzora Cozart Knight, Etheridge 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. In his first published collection, he cleverly described his relationship with poetry: "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."

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.

Etheridge Knight came to understand that the creation of art and indeed the very definition of art rest upon the ability of "every man" pursuing the mastery "of his own destiny."

He worked under the influenced of the notion that each individual had to "come to grips with his own experience." That process consists, he affirmed, of the very reflection of each individual’s own self or ego.

Knight's first book of poem was titled Poems from Prison and was published by Dudley Randall. 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.

About Knight’s work, Brooks, in her preface to Poems From Prison, averred, "Since Etheridge Knight is not your stifled artiste, there is air in these poems. And there is blackness, inclusive, possessed and given; freed and terrible and beautiful."

One of his best and funniest haiku offering is the following:

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

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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 vernacular of the African America voice, and his poetry readings never failed to entertain and delight audiences that flocked to his readings.

Knight chose to use rime often in his poetry because he believed that the common individual on the street expected poetry to rime. According to Dudley Randall, writing in his Broadside Memories: Poets I Have Known,

Knight does not abjure rime like many contemporary poets. He says the average . . . man in the streets defines poetry as something that rimes, and Knight appeals to the folk by riming.

Randall also noted that although Knight’s poetry remained “influenced by the folk,” his works were also "prized by other poets."

(Please note: Interestingly, poet Dudley Randall employs the rare but original spelling of the poetry device, "rime." The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Knight 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.

In addition to his first published poetry collection, Poems from Prison, Knight also brought out the volumes A Poem for Brother Man (1972), Belly Song and Other Poems (1973), Born of a Woman: New and Selected Poems (1980). His final published collection garners many favorable reviews.

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.

In 1992, the city of Indianapolis, where Knight spent much of his life, instituted in the poet’s honor the Etheridge Knight Festival of the Arts. The poet’s sister, Eunice Knight-Bowens, founded the festival as a tribute to her brother.

Both local and national artist have performed at the festival, with many of those artist later began serving as mentors to beginning poets.

The festival, in 2012, hosted a huge celebration with many nationally known poets in attendance: Sonia Sanchez, to whom Knight had once been married, Mari Evans, Haki Madhubuti, and LeRoi Jones, aka Amiri Baraka.

This "Evening with the Legends," as it was dubbed also featured a tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks, so fitting considering the important influence she had had on the efficacy of Knight’s poetry.

One might say this festival went out with a bang, as the year 2012 was the last year the festival had been celebrated, likely because of the death of Knight’s sister, who was the founder of the festival. Knight was awarded posthumously in 1993 the Governor’s Arts Award, sponsored by the Indiana Arts Commission.

Etheridge died of lung cancer on March 10, 1991. He is interred at Crown Hill Cemetery, in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Etheridge Knight's Tombstone

Etheridge Knight's Tombstone


© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on November 23, 2016:

Yes, assures us that surprising knowledge can come from unexpected, surprising places. Thanks for the comment.

& again thanks, Patricia, for the angels!

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on November 23, 2016:

His haiku are amazing" ... convicts rest

like lizards on rocks"....yes, indeed

and the mind is the real intuitive he was...his work transcends time and place.

So glad you shared this. Angels are on the way to you and hoping for you a Happy Thanksgiving. ps shared

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