Etheridge Knight began writing poetry while an inmate at the Indiana State Prison and published his first collection, Poems from Prison in 1968. "His work was hailed by black writers and critics as another excellent example of the powerful truth of blackness in art," writes Shirley Lumpkin in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "His work became important in Afro-American poetry and poetics and in the strain of Anglo-American poetry descended from Walt Whitman." Since then, Knight has attained recognition as a major poet, earning both Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award nominations for Belly Song and Other Poems as well as the acclaim of such fellow practitioners as Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Bly, and Galway Kinnell.
When Knight entered prison, he was already an accomplished reciter of "toasts"—long, memorized, narrative poems, often in rhymed couplets, in which "sexual exploits, drug activities, and violent aggressive conflicts involving a cast of familiar folk . . . are related . . . using street slang, drug and other specialized argot, and often obscenities," explains Lumpkin. Toast-reciting at Indiana State Prison not only refined Knight's expertise in this traditional Afro-American art form but also, according to Lumpkin, gave him a sense of identity and an understanding of the possibilities of poetry. "Since toast-telling brought him into genuine communion with others, he felt that poetry could simultaneously show him who he was and connect him with other people." In an article for the Detroit Free Press about Dudley Randall, the founder of Broadside Press, Suzanne Dolezal, indicates that Randall was impressed with Knight and visited him frequently at the prison: "In a small room reserved for consultations with death row inmates, with iron doors slamming and prisoners shouting in the background, Randall convinced a hesitant Knight of his talent." And, says Dolezal, Randall feels that because Knight was from the streets, "He may be a deeper poet than many of the others because he has felt more anguish."
Much of Knight's prison poetry, according to Patricia Liggins Hill in Black American Literature Forum focuses on imprisonment as a form of contemporary enslavement and looks for ways in which one can be free despite incarceration. Time and space are significant in the concept of imprisonment, and Hill indicates that "specifically, what Knight relies on for his prison poetry are various temporal/spatial elements which allow him to merge his personal consciousness with the consciousness of Black people." Hill believes that this merging of consciousness "sets him apart from the other new Black poets . . . [who] see themselves as poets/ priests. . . . Knight sees himself as being one with Black people." Randall observes in Broadside Memories: Poets I Have Known that "Knight 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." Randall notes that while Knight's poetry is "influenced by the folk," it is also "prized by other poets."
Knight's Born of a Woman: New and Selected Poems includes work from Poems from Prison, Black Voices from Prison and Belly Song and Other Poems. Although David Pinckney states in Parnassus that the "new poems do not indicate much artistic growth," a Virginia Quarterly Review contributor writes that Knight "has distinguished his voice and craftsmanship among contemporary poets, and he deserves a large, serious audience for his work." Moreover, H. Bruce Franklin suggests in the Village Voice that with Born of a Woman, "Knight has finally attained recognition as a major poet." Further, Franklin credits Knight's leadership "in developing a powerful literary mode based on the rhythms of black street talk, blues, ballads, and 'toasts.'"
Reviewing Born of a Woman for Black American Literature Forum Hill describes Knight as a "masterful blues singer, a singer whose life has been 'full of trouble' and thus whose songs resound a variety of blues moods, feelings, and experiences and later take on the specific form of a blues musical composition." Lumpkin suggests that an "awareness of the significance of form governed Knight's arrangement of the poems in the volume as well as his revisions. . . . He put them in clusters or groupings under titles which are musical variations on the book's essential theme—life inside and outside prison." Calling this structure a "jazz composition mode," Lumpkin also notes that it was once used by Langston Hughes in an arrangement of his poetry. Craig Werner observes in Obsidian: Black Literature in Review: "Technically, Knight merges musical rhythms with traditional metrical devices, reflecting the assertion of an Afro-American cultural identity within a Euro-American context. Thematically, he denies that the figures of the singer . . . and the warrior . . . are or can be separate." Lumpkin finds that "despite the pain and evil described and attacked, a celebration and an affirmation of life run through the volume." And in the Los Angeles Times Book Review Peter Clothier considers the poems to be "tools for self-discovery and discovery of the world—a loud announcement of the truths they pry loose."
Lumpkin points out that "some critics find Knight's use of . . . [language] objectionable and unpoetic and think he does not use verse forms well," and some believe that he "maintains an outmoded, strident black power rhetoric from the 1960s." However, Lumpkin concludes: "Those with reservations and those who admire his work all agree . . . upon his vital language and the range of his subject matter. They all agree that he brings a needed freshness to poetry, particularly in his extraordinary ability to move an audience. . . . A number of poets, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Bly, and Galway Kinnell among them . . . consider him a major Afro-American poet because of his human subject matter, his combination of traditional techniques with an expertise in using rhythmic and oral speech patterns, and his ability to feel and to project his feelings into a poetic structure that moves others."
Knight once told CA he believed a definition of art and aesthetics assumes that "every man is the master of his own destiny and comes to grips with the society by his own efforts. The 'true' artist is supposed to examine his own experience of this process as a reflection of his self, his ego." Knight felt "white society denies art, because art unifies rather than separates; it brings people together instead of alienating them." The western/European aesthetic dictates that "the artist speak only of the beautiful (himself and what he sees); his task is to edify the listener, to make him see beauty of the world." Black artists must stay away from this because "the red of this aesthetic rose got its color from the blood of black slaves, exterminated Indians, napalmed Vietnamese children." According to Knight, the black artist must "perceive and conceptualize the collective aspirations, the collective vision of black people, and through his art form give back to the people the truth that he has gotten from them. He must sing to them of their own deeds, and misdeeds."