Poetry News

Terrence Hayes Brings Etheridge Knight into Focus

By Harriet Staff

We can't recommend enough tonight's event at NYU: Terrence Hayes will deliver his Bagley Wright Lecture entitled "Three Acts of Love: ‘As You Leave Me,’ ‘Upon Your Leaving,’ and ‘Feeling Fucked Up.'" As mentioned in a recent profile, the series commissions poets to develop and deliver public lectures about poetry to national and international audiences. Terrence Hayes's lecture will be all about Etheridge Knight. In the meantime, Paris Review Daily delivers this preview of Hayes's lecture:

Who was Etheridge Knight, and why should he be of interest to me, or more important, to you? Knight himself thought it was enough simply to say, on the back of his 1968 debut collection, Poems from Prison, “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.” If you’ve read anything about him, you’ve likely encountered these lines. Just behind their resurrectional vibe are several unwritten chapters in the biography of a talented, ex-con, con man, blues-blooded rambling romantic.

Knight died in 1991. He was born in 1931 in Corinth, Mississippi, a town founded only about around eighty years before his birth. Thus the “ancestors” of his most anthologized poem, “The Idea of Ancestry,” only go back not to Africa but to his grandparents. The Cozarts on his mother’s side of the family counted themselves among the town’s founders; they were landowners, cotton farmers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and storytellers. His father, on the other hand, was a laborer from Ramer, Tennessee, a smaller-than-small town twenty minutes from Corinth. According to Eunice, Knight’s younger sister, their mother, Belzora Cozart, didn’t know a thing about being poor until she married Etheridge Bushie Knight, and then moved with their children nearly two hundred miles north to Paducah, Kentucky, when he took a job working on the Kentucky Dam. Knight was just a boy at the time, but as he writes in “The Idea of Ancestry,” “the brown hills and red gullies of Mississippi” were already calling him back with “their electric messages, galvanizing [his] genes.”

He returned often to the place he considered his true home. As a boy, Junior, as the family called him, was shocked by the racism he encountered in Paducah, as Eunice told me when I interviewed her in 2005. (She died in 2013.) “Balcony of movie house, back of class with raggediest books, restrooms marked colored. But in Corinth, he went anywhere he wanted because he was Mr. Cozart’s grandson … He ran back to Mississippi.”[...]

Read more at Paris Review Daily and see you tonight at 5!

Originally Published: March 13th, 2015