Yesterday morning I was sitting in the dining room of my house, a co-op of 20-something housemates who are always coming in and out. The conversations we have are wonderfully different every day. One of my housemates sat near me as I was working, and we got to talking about music we loved, and then poetry we loved, and then Etheridge Knight. I pushed my laptop across the table and told him to read “Feeling Fucked Up,” then sat there and tried not to seem too much like I was watching him read it, which I was.
It’s hard not to feel this way about any artistic work, or any thing, that you really like, and especially about Knight. His is the kind of work that doesn’t just dig under your skin; it starts under there, and it only burrows deeper, past the heart and to the spirit and the soul. Etheridge Knight was a major poet of the 20th century whose first two books, “Poems from Prison” and “Black Voices from Prison,” chronicled the eight years Knight spent incarcerated, the writing he produced during that time and the writings of his fellow inmates.
I’ve written columns here in the past about poets who battled systems of oppression and incarceration in order to share their feelings and ideas with the world, among them Anna Akhmatova and Nguyễn Chí Thiện. Both of these writers faced oppressive governments in their home countries (Vietnam and Russia, respectively), and the former emigrated to the United States later in his life. It is interesting in somewhat different ways to examine the story of Knight, whose story of oppression is distinctly and troublingly American.
Knight enlisted in the U.S. army in 1947 when he was only sixteen and served for three years as a medical technician in the Korean War. This experience left him both physically and psychologically traumatized, his trauma leading to an opiate addiction. A decade later, in 1960, Knight was arrested for armed robbery. He would spend most of the 1960s — a socially, culturally and artistically pivotal time in America — in prison, before his release in 1968. That same year, he published “Poems from Prison” and married Sonia Sanchez, another major literary figure of the Black Arts Movement.
Knight’s experiences at war, his drug addiction, his time spent in prison — these were interlocking issues, issues that affected Knight all throughout his life. Yet what truly characterized his life and his work was his undying commitment to feeling and truth. He was in all respects a proponent of passion, whose persistent efforts to access human truth and spirit through language and poetry live on through his literary work and the effect he has had on other writers.
His expertise in language is impressive in its fluidity. Knight’s work is constantly shifting in terms of his approaches to form, structure, rhyme and other crucial poetic elements. Any avenue into his work might offer a different first impression, all more or less equally thrilling and captivating. There’s the lyricism and back-and-forth structure of “At a VA Hospital in the Middle of the United States of America: An Act in a Play,” which, like much of Knight’s work, carries the heavy implication of musical influence. There’s the prose-but-not-quite storytelling of “A Fable,” and the simple, heart-rending lament of “Cell Song,” which carries within its four brief stanzas a sense of tragedy particular to Knight’s experience in prison. What Knight’s rich and varied array of creative work has in common, it shares with the poet himself: a studious and brave attention to the human experience, impossible to divorce from the deep natures of heart and soul.