When we think of great poets, we often tend to picture the likes of Shakespeare, Byron, and Plath, but we believe that Etheridge Knight is one poet that everyone should check out. Born on April 19, 1931, today would’ve marked Knight’s 87th birthday. To celebrate, we’re going to be exploring the journey of an artist who overcame a life of crime, addiction, and imprisonment to become a teacher, scholar, and poet.
One of eight siblings born in Mississippi to a lower class family. Knight was a particularly able student but decided to leave school at 16 and become a shoeshine boy. It was during this time that he began to pick up on the nuances of language and he discovered ‘toasts,’ spoken word poetry that tells a story. Knight joined the army in 1947 and served in the Korean War until late 1950. During this time, he sustained serious physical wounds as well as severe psychological trauma. His mental and physical wounds left him addicted to opiates and for the next few years he supported his habit by dealing drugs and stealing.
After several run ins with the law, Knight was arrested in 1960 and was charged with armed robbery for which he served eight years in prison. Knight later stated that he was unable to recall his first few months in prison but felt enraged by his circumstances. He eventually realised that his anger was a waste of time and instead he focused on reading and poetry. Knight began working as a journalist for prison publications and became well known for his poetry. He submitted works to Negro Digest from 1965 and soon began making contact with notable members of the African-American literary community, poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, Dudley Randall, and Sonia Sanchez, some of whom came to visit him. In 1968, a poet and owner of Broadside Press, Dudley Randall, published a volume of Knight’s poems in the book Poems From Prison. The book’s release coincided with Knight’s own release from prison and he was hailed by Randall as a major poet of the Black Arts Movement.
Knight went on to marry a fellow poet named Sonia Sanchez and spent several years working as writer-in-residence for several universities, and also worked as a poetry editor for Motive magazine. However, his ongoing drug addiction caused his marriage to fail and the two divorced in 1970. Knight began work on his third publication, called Belly Song and Other Poems which explored his new attitudes towards love, race, caused by his life experiences. The book was praised for its sincerity and was nominated for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. This period of Knight’s career was very successful and saw him win both a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1972 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974.
In 1977, after being divorced a second time, Knight moved to Memphis, Tennessee where he entered rehab to treat his methadone addiction. By the time he was clean, Knight realised he had become exactly what he expressed a desire to become in a journal from 1965: a voice that was heard and helped his people. He went on to publish a compilation of his works, called Born of a Woman. The Essential Etheridge Knight, and believed that the role of a poet was to be a “meddler” and that poets are intermediaries between the reader and the text.
Knight earned a bachelor’s degree in 1990 for American poetry and criminal justice. He then taught at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Hartford, and Lincoln University. He continued to be a charismatic poetry reader up until his death in 1991 due to lung cancer.
Knight published many long form poems as well as traditional Haikus. Notable poems include the likes of Feeling Fucked Up, A Fable, Apology for Apostasy?, and Haiku, the opening of which reads: “Eastern guard tower / glints in sunset; convicts rest / like lizards on rocks.”
Etheridge Knight is an artist who, despite his hardships, overcame the odds and used his love of poetry to carve out a life of meaning. His works continue to be enjoyed and will no doubt inspire readers for decades to come. He’s certainly one to check out for anyone out there who enjoys poetry but is unfamiliar with his works, and he’s also a reminder that poetry isn’t just about love and flowery summer days. Here’s to you, Etheridge, happy birthday!