Essay

No Square Poet’s Job

Etheridge Knight’s Poems from Prison has been essential reading for 50 years.
Illustration of the poet Etheridge Knight on a collage background.

In solitary, Reginald Dwayne Betts never knew what was coming. It was 1996, and Betts was just beginning a nine-year stretch in the Virginia state prison system for a carjacking he and a friend had committed. Betts’s codefendant occupied the prison’s only juvenile unit; Betts was put in solitary to keep the boys separated. He was 16 years old.

Betts killed time by reading whatever he could get his hands on, burning through three or four books a day. Fiction was always preferred. A good plot made it easier to forget the cinder block walls and razor wire enclosing him, if only for a few minutes. But prisoners in the hole didn’t have a choice of reading material. They called out for a book and someone—Betts never knew who—slid a random volume under the door. One day, a copy of The Black Poets (1971), a seminal anthology edited by Dudley Randall, sailed across the concrete floor.

Betts hadn’t read much poetry. The works of Robert Hayden, Sonia Sanchez, and Gwendolyn Brooks came as a revelation. But one set of poems in particular had a profound effect on him. The poet’s name was Etheridge Knight.

“Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black faces…” reads the opening line of “The Idea of Ancestry,” Knight’s meditation on the family photographs that kept him company during his own eight-year sentence in Indiana State Prison for armed robbery. After drifting back to the colors (“red gullies”) and tastes (“cornwhiskey from fruit jars”) of his Mississippi “birthstream,” Knight returns to his cell:

This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my stream, and when
the falling leaves stir my genes, I pace my cell or flop on my bunk
and stare at 47 black faces across the space. I am all of them,
they are all of me, I am me, they are thee, and I have no children
to float in the space between.

“The Idea of Ancestry” appeared in Knight’s debut, Poems from Prison (1968), published by Randall’s Broadside Press in Detroit. The 31-page collection, written entirely behind bars, treats imprisonment as a modern extension of slavery even as it gestures toward the possibility of intellectual and spiritual freedom. For Betts, forced to grow up almost overnight among hardened criminals, Knight was an epiphany. “I was holding this thing, and he was in it,” Betts says. “He was a poet and he had been in prison. It was the shattering of a glass of impossibility to me.”

Betts started writing his own poetry and finished high school from inside. He served out his sentence, enrolled in college, and earned his MFA from Warren Wilson College and a law degree from Yale. His books—Bastards of the Reagan Era (2015), Shahid Reads His Own Palm (2010), and A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison (2009)have won acclaim and major awards. Betts is quick to clarify that he was inspired as much by the quality of Knight’s writing as by his example. “A lot of things stood out about his work,” Betts says. “In some ways his work was better, but it was also different. It was emotionally engaging in a different way. It was not as if he was lacking in formal gifts—but he wrote from his belly. It had an emotional resonance that was distinct and unique then and is still distinct and unique.”

A half-century after its publication, Poems from Prison reads like a dispatch from the underside of America. Its subjects—drug addiction, posttraumatic stress, institutionalization, and mass incarceration, particularly of Black Americans—remain as urgent as ever. But beyond the politics of Knight’s writing is a raw humanity, steeped in the southern oral tradition, that speaks to anybody, regardless of race, even if they’ve never seen the inside of a jail.

Gwendolyn Brooks, one of Knight’s early mentors, suggests as much in her preface to the book, which she opens with just two words: “Vital. Vital.”

***

Betts isn’t alone in his admiration. Knight’s influence is evident in the poems of Randall Horton, John Murillo, Christopher Gilbert, and many others, particularly Black men drawn to Knight’s treatment of masculinity, poverty, and systemic injustice. “There was a timeless quality in terms of theme and subject matter,” says Horton, who discovered Knight as a student in 2003 and is now an associate professor of English at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. “Violence, humanity, and race, which is a huge problem. Even though it was written on the inside, it was very much influenced by life on the outside.” Horton served nearly seven years in prison in Maryland and Virginia for theft and other felonies. His books include Hook: A Memoir (2015), Pitch Dark Anarchy (2013), The Definition of Place (2006), and others. He has also won numerous awards.

Terrance Hayes is one of the most prominent contemporary poets indebted to Knight. His latest book, To Float in the Space Between (2018), is a collection of personal essays and reflections about the poet. Hayes was on a basketball scholarship at Coker College in South Carolina in the late 1980s when he discovered Knight’s prison verse in his literature textbook. Hayes had never been incarcerated, but like Knight, he was a Black man from the South. “There was something I recognized from my own family and experience,” Hayes says. “I grew up with relatives in and out of prison.” (Both of Hayes’s parents worked in the prison system.) “It was both new to me and familiar. He wrote with an interiority that humanizes prison. It made a deep impact on me.”

Inspired by Knight, Hayes abandoned his basketball career and went on to publish seven collections of poetry, one of which, Lighthead (2010), won a National Book Award. Knight has always featured prominently in Hayes’s work, as evidenced by poems such as “The Blue Etheridge,” from Wind in a Box (2006), and the three-part “Portrait of Etheridge Knight in the Style of a Crime Report,” from How to Be Drawn (2015).

“He is always near me,” says Hayes, who because of a busy basketball schedule missed a chance to fly to Indianapolis and meet Knight before the poet’s death from lung cancer in 1991. In the first chapter of his new book, Hayes writes: “Each time I’ve returned to my work on Knight between publications of my own poetry books, only the impossibility of a biography has remained consistent. He remains both a muse and mystery.”

The mystery runs deep. “He lied as much about his life as he told the truth,” says the poet Fran Quinn, a close friend of Knight. “That’s just the nature of who he was. He was an incredibly complex guy, who literally did a bunch of things that you weren’t supposed to do. He was a dictionary of all the kinds of people your mother told you about.” Although often rooted in the circumstances of his life, Knight’s poems offer little in the way of reliable autobiography. “All you’re going to get is the legend of Etheridge Knight,” Quinn says.

That legend begins in Corinth, Mississippi, where Knight was born in 1931, one of five, six, seven, or eight children, depending on whom you ask. Knight once told the Memphis Commercial Appeal that his father was a construction worker who uprooted the family to Paducah for a job on the Kentucky Dam, and then on to another opportunity in Indianapolis, jumping from what the Memphis journalist described as “poverty to poverty.” But Knight’s younger sister painted a different portrait for biographer Michael S. Collins, author of Understanding Etheridge Knight (2012). Their father was a railroad worker who followed the tracks northward, she said, and their mother, also a poet, came from money. The Knight children were well educated and exposed to music and the arts. She told Collins that while the family wasn’t wealthy, she doesn’t remember wanting for anything either.

Knight often described his childhood as that of a frequent runaway who, despite his allegedly A grade-point average, dropped out of high school at 16 to shine shoes and hang out in bars, billiards halls, and backroom poker games. It was in these rough milieus that Knight first fell in love with language—overheard banter, curses, and “toasts,” the poems, sometimes delivered in rhyming couplets, in which Black patrons embellished the heroic narratives of their lives.

Tales of Knight’s own heroic exploits date back to 1947, when records confirm that the 16-year-old joined the United States Army. In 1950, according to Collins and most other accounts, Knight shipped off to the war in Korea. Knight is on record saying that the carnage he witnessed on the battlefield drove him to numb himself with morphine—an addiction that shaped the rest of his life. (“I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound and narcotics resurrected me,” reads the first line of the About the Author section printed on the first edition of Poems from Prison, a quip Knight regularly used to introduce himself.)

“For P.F.C Joe Rogers (killed at Inchon)” describes a fatal nighttime firefight:

The wind is laced with aching cries:
There is blood on that moon tonight.

The problem with this pivotal moment in Knight’s life is that there’s no proof it happened. After Collins published his biography, a reader emailed him to challenge the assertion that Knight had ever gone to Korea. Some of Knight’s closest friends have expressed similar skepticism. Because a fire in 1973 gutted the repository that housed Knight’s military records, scholars are unlikely to know if the poet ever saw action in Korea. As Collins points out, however, documentation of Knight’s enlistment and honorable discharge have survived.

Whether Knight picked up his habit in Korea or on the streets, there’s no dispute that by the time he was discharged from the army in late 1950, he was addicted to opiates. And that addiction was accompanied by an appetite for alcohol, methadone, and cocaine, and for petty crimes like forging prescriptions. In 1958, he was busted jumping from a second-story hospital window with a bottle of medicine that contained cocaine. He told the judge he’d already been arrested about 10 times for larceny and narcotics. The judge slapped him with a fine and a suspended sentence. Two years later, the cops hauled Knight in on a charge of armed robbery. He and two associates were convicted of holding up a woman at gunpoint for ten dollars. This time, the judge sentenced Knight to eight years in the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City.

The first work in Poems from Prison, “Cell Song,” ends with the unpunctuated question that now faced Knight, and that he spent the next several years trying to answer:

can there anything
good come out of
prison

***

Nothing good came out of Knight’s early days behind bars. He was so aggrieved by what he considered the injustice of his incarceration that he later told friends he erased or suppressed memories of his first few months inside. Knight, who didn’t graduate high school and had little job experience, was often assigned menial tasks on the cellblock, according to Collins. When Knight refused to work, he was thrown in solitary, where he stewed over schemes to shorten his sentence.

Literature became Knight’s salvation. “The guy read the entire prison library,” Collins says. “He got deep into reading philosophy and speculations about the way the mind works, the way addiction works.” Reading helped Knight pass the time, but more importantly, it taught him how to focus.

“Language is important in prison,” says the poet Yusef Komunyakaa, a close friend of Knight’s. “In prison, there is an understood silence. When one says something, they have to mean it. Or else they pay for it.” In “For Freckle-Faced Gerald,” the story of a teenager overwhelmed (and presumably raped) during his turn in general population, Knight lays out the consequences of not asserting oneself:

Take Gerald. Sixteen years hadn’t even done
a good job on his voice. He didn’t even know
how to talk tough, or how to hide the glow
of life before he was thrown in as “pigmeat”
for the buzzards to eat.

[…]

Gerald, sun-kissed ten thousand times on the nose
and cheeks, didn’t stand a chance,
didn’t even know that the loss of his balls
had been plotted years in advance
by wiser and bigger buzzards than those
who now hover above his track
and at night light upon his back.

Tough talk wasn’t the only way to avoid a fate like Gerald’s. Words can also disarm and cajole and ingratiate, as Knight discovered. “He used language to keep people off his back,” says friend and poet Kenneth May. “[Prison is] a violent environment—the ability to wound or entertain someone with words would serve as his protection.” Knight honed his gift for spinning yarns and amused fellow inmates with the “toast” narratives he’d learned years before. He also became a sort of jailhouse de Bergerac, penning letters to other imprisoned men’s lovesick wives and girlfriends.

Knight gained respect by writing about addiction and other social issues for the prison newsletter. He submitted his work to publications outside of the jailhouse, too, and in 1965, he finally broke through with a series of poems and stories in Negro Digest, a major outlet for the Black Arts Movement. According to Collins, the editor of Negro Digest profiled Knight, noting that, “‘Mr. Knight has justified the editors’ faith in him’ by not letting publication go to his head and continuing ‘to learn, to read, to analyze, to question.’”

The literary community took note. Gwendolyn Brooks visited Knight in prison and critiqued his work. (Who initiated the relationship is unclear.) Poet Sonia Sanchez was another fan. She married Knight in 1968. (They divorced two years later.) Perhaps the most instrumental early mentor was Randall, the poet and publisher from Detroit, who urged a reluctant Knight to pursue writing, and who maintained a kind of epistolary workshop with him.

The result was the 28 poems in Poems from Prison, which includes odes to poets Brooks and Langston Hughes, the singer Dinah Washington, and a cluster of verses for Malcolm X, the activist, ex-con, and prolific prison writer who was one of Knight’s political heroes. In “For Malcolm, A Year After,” he writes:

Compose a verse for Malcolm man,
And make it rime and make it prim.
The verse will die—as all men do—
But not the memory of him!

The meat of the book, though, is exactly what its title promises. Knight invites readers into the cell, into the hole, and into the most claustrophobic space of all: the inmate’s mind. He ponders family photos and imagines a life on the outside that seems to pick up where he left it, as in “The Idea of Ancestry.” Other times, he contemplates the hierarchy of prison life, as in “He Sees Through Stone,” about an inmate elder who once showed Knight the ropes but is now fading:

he led me trembling cold
into the dark forest
taught me the secret rites
to make it with a woman
to be true to my brothers
to make my spear drink
the blood of my enemies 

Underlying the poems is Knight’s sense of incarceration as a natural extension of slavery. “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane,” a poem about a formerly formidable inmate whom the system figuratively and literally lobotomized, ends this way:

He had been our Destroyer, the doer of things
We dreamed of doing but could not bring ourselves to do,
The fears of years, like a biting whip,
Had cut deep bloody grooves
Across our backs.

Or consider “The Warden Said to Me the Other Day,” an eight-line exchange in which the warden asks why Black prisoners don’t try to escape. “Well, suh,…I reckon it’s cause / we ain’t got no wheres to run to,” Knight replies.

Knight’s style often made use of dialect and Black vernacular, along with slang and curse words—a style that reflected his experiences on the street and in prison. “[He] saw language as a living organism,” Collins says. “It was his way of saying writing poetry in iambic pentameter might not be the way America speaks.” Randall, who nurtured Knight’s talent, once wrote that, “[He] does not objure rime like many contemporary poets. He says the average Black man in the streets defines poetry as something that rimes, and Knight appeals to the folk by riming.” While Knight was certainly “influenced by the folk,” Randall noted that Knight’s art was “prized by other poets,” too.

Poems from Prison was a critical and relative commercial success. The book introduced the then-37-year-old Knight to a new world of literary camaraderie and writing residencies. Drugs, Knight had written, resurrected him from his alleged wounds in Korea. The second sentence of the About the Author section on later editions of Poems from Prison tells the other half of his story: “I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life.”

***

Knight’s new life was fraught with contradictions. Although he was a formally adventurous poet who exploited the possibilities of Black slang, blues, and street vernacular, he was pigeonholed as a prison poet. “He was a poet before he got to prison,” Hayes says. “It’s not just folk art. ‘The Idea of Ancestry’ stands up with everything in that freshman text book. I think it’s as technically sophisticated as anything in that text book.”

Some of the poems in Poems from Prison are set outside of the familiar concrete walls. The spare, three-stanza “Nickel Bet,” for example, is a snapshot of that brief moment of hope as someone riffles through the morning newspaper only to find that his lottery number hasn’t been called. “As You Leave Me” is a tender paean to a woman as she leaves the narrator’s cluttered apartment after a tryst. Only at the end does Knight reveal that the girl is a prostitute: “…and I die as I watch you / disappear in the dark streets / to whistle and smile at the johns.”

Given the civil rights tumult of the late 1960s when Knight emerged, as well as his kinship with Brooks, Randall, and Haki R. Madhubuti, Knight was lumped in with the Black Arts Movement. But there again, he did his best to shrug off labels. “He owned [being a prominent Black voice] but he didn’t want that to be the thread through his work,” Komunyakaa says. “He wanted to get beyond that.” Komunyakaa believes that Knight probably identified more deeply with class than with race, although the two aren’t easily separated.

Money was a constant struggle for Knight, especially given the vagaries of his addiction. He hustled for speaking and lecturing engagements, any way to make a quick buck, although he didn’t want to be filmed or recorded for fear it would lessen demand for his public appearances. Teaching at colleges and universities is a lucrative sideline for many writers, but it was a gig that Knight scorned. “If you spoke in academic terms, he’d never trust you,” says Quinn, a former professor at Butler University. “He’d say, ‘That’s bullshit language. Why don’t you talk like ordinary people?’ Knight came from the oral tradition. What we forget is that the oral tradition isn’t ignorant. It has its own sophistication to it. When he went to prison, who was there? The educated? Not in the way that the academic world likes to talk about itself. They were educated in the oral tradition, the largely Black oral tradition.”

Nonetheless, Knight accepted writer-in-residence jobs at several universities, including the University of Pittsburgh and Wesleyan University. “He liked to play the guy who wouldn’t read a book,” Komunyakaa says. “He would never have said so, but I think he admired people with academic stature.”

Knight’s grifter tricks would have put him at odds with faculty society anyway. Quinn recalls that the Ward A. Canaday Center at the University of Toledo once agreed to buy some of Knight’s papers. Figuring that the Center paid per box, Knight stuffed boxes with newspapers and old phone bills. Another time, Quinn had to pat down Knight after he discovered the poet lifting books from Quinn’s personal library. Then there was the time Knight called Quinn from Texas the night before a reading in Massachusetts. Knight claimed he had lost his plane ticket and asked Quinn to wire some money. Quinn did, only to discover later that Knight was already in Massachusetts, and had been calling about two blocks from Quinn’s house. “He’d be strung out,” Quinn recalls. “He’d need drugs.”

In the 23 years between his parole and his death in 1991, Knight published four collections and a handful of miscellaneous poems. “He certainly produced more in the shorter time he was in prison,” Collins says. “Outside, he was busy having a life, making a living, having relationships. He was also indulging in drugs again. His talent didn’t diminish, but his productivity went down.” Writing about Born of a Woman: New and Selected Poems (1980), the critic David Pinckney argued that Knight’s “new poems do not indicate much artistic growth.” But such assessments were mostly outliers. Knight’s work continued to be well received, and garnered honors from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Poetry Society of America, among others. Belly Song (1973) was nominated for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

“He never wanted just one thing,” Quinn says. “One day, he’d want to give a couple readings; the next day he’d want to score some dope. Or he’d want to make enough so his kids wouldn’t starve. Or to get his ex-wife off his back. What did poetry mean to him? Poetry was important to him, but it was so visceral, so much a part of his life, that he couldn’t afford to answer that question in the way you and I would answer it. He wasn’t expecting the whole poem to last.” Quinn adds that what Knight was after wasn’t fame or adulation, but “one phrase, one line” that would change the English language.

***

Poems from Prison is arguably the closest Knight came to achieving that ambition. It’s the high-water mark of his career, and a still-resonant document of mass incarceration and the injustices of America’s penal system. While it’s the book that defines Knight as a poet, his legacy goes well beyond those 31 pages. After all, his voice sprang from the oral tradition, the authentic language of people who didn’t care—or were unable—to commit their thoughts to paper. As he writes in “Haiku”:

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

“He made direct connections between the tradition that he was coming out of and rap and hip-hop music,” Collins says. “Rap shows that there’s something poetic that people crave. Knight’s a bridge between the academic style of poetry and the hip-hop sensibility. His poems are as intense as any rap song, but also have the subtleties and layers that you associate with the most refined poetry.”

The Violent Space (or when your sister sleeps around for money)” is another poem about a prostitute—not actually based on Knight’s own sisters—that combines the intensity of a rap song with the nuance of poetry. The brother/narrator warns the sister with the refrain “(Run sister run—the Bugga man comes!)” as he watches her “shake [her] butt to the violent juke” and bemoans his own shame:

And what do I do. I boil my tears in a twisted spoon
And dance like an angel on the point of a needle.

This sympathy with street culture is one of Knight’s most enduring qualities. And it’s one reason why educators in the prison system still teach his work. “When you’re on the inside, you’re facing a lot of emotions,” says Horton, who has volunteered in prisons. “Self-worth is a tricky thing. [Knight] creates that license to talk about the things you experience and use it as a springboard. I’ve always been a proponent of letting the people on the inside see that someone was able to write on the inside and create a body of work that is revered about their experiences.”

After his release, Knight hosted informal sessions in his Indianapolis apartment for people who wanted to recite or listen to poetry. Kenneth May, a regular at these meetings, which sometimes lasted four or five hours, recalls that, “[Knight] was very embracing of letting people come into his space and sharing poetry, as long as we brought some beer and vodka.”

Given the number of attendees, and given that Knight didn’t want everyone guzzling his booze, these sessions would sometimes move to a local bar. “One of the things he wanted his students to do was be aware of the oral dimension of the poem,” Collins says. “When he would workshop in bars, he would always pick a table near the bathroom. He’d say that if you could make someone with a full bladder on the way to the bathroom stop and listen, you’ve got a real poem.”

The Free People’s Poetry Workshop, as it came to be known, welcomed writers from all walks of life. “I remember him saying in one of our groups that ‘they released me from prison into a bigger prison,’” May says. “He saw a lack of freedom. He saw constraint. Almost a caste society. He created these workshops to break down those barriers. It was a way to contribute to the struggle and have his message be heard.” 

In that regard, the workshops, and the community they fostered, might be Knight’s most personal work, the achievement in which his constant mythmaking took a backseat to mentoring a new generation of would-be writers. That insistence on solidarity, and on championing those whom society considered expendable, likewise inspired the careers of Betts, Hayes, and so many other contemporary poets. “We can argue about political issues,” May says. “But [Knight] knew that inclusion and sharing would be the best way to build a larger platform from which to progress. His work is relevant in that way more than ever.”

Originally Published: August 27th, 2018

Tony Rehagen is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. His work has appeared in Pacific Standard, Popular Mechanics, Politico, and espnW.