John Paul Minarik
Out of the Dark
Etheridge Knight came out of the dark of prison to be seen as one of America's most prominent poets. In a 1982 letter to me, he shared: "I have no academic degrees--not even high school. My literary career began while I was an inmate at Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, where I was sentenced in 1960 to a 10-20 year term for robbery. My first book was published while I was an inmate there, and my second book was completed while an inmate and published soon after my release from prison in 1968."
Etheridge Knight's books are: Poems from Prison (Broadside Press, Detroit, 1968); Black Voices from Prison (Pathfinder Press, New York, 1970); Belly Song & Other Poems (Broadside Press, Detroit, 1973); Born of Woman (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1981); The Essential Etheridge Knight (University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 1986). His work has been widely anthologized; his famous poem "Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminally Insane" appears in The Norton Anthology of Modern Verse, still used in many college courses. (That one poem in that one anthology may have been the only exposure yuppies had to literature from the dark.)
Without "even high school," Etheridge Knight has taught at the University of Pittsburgh in 1968, the University of Hartford in 1970-71, Lincoln University in 1972-72, Temple University in 1985, and at writer's conferences across America. Like Malcolm X who came to prison an illiterate and educated himself (first by copying words from a dictionary), Etheridge educated himself in prison (reading The New York Times Book Review and every book he could get his hands upon, working on the prison newspaper, meeting with Gwendolyn Brooks in the prison visiting room--this was long before the time of prison college programs).
Etheridge Knight won a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship ($12,000) in 1974 and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1972. In 1985, he was awarded the Shelly Memorial Award by the Poetry Society of America in recognition of distinguished achievement in poetry. After Judson Jerome asked his readers and later more than 6,000 poets listed by Poets & Writers, Inc., to send their lists of major living American poets, in the November, 1986 issue of Writer's Digest, Etheridge Knight was reported to rank 72nd.
Etheridge has read his poems at the Library of Congress (available from Watershed Tapes), in a Town Hall in New York to an audience of 3,000, and to audiences across the country. When he lived in Memphis, Tennessee in the '70s and early '80s, Etheridge became known as a barroom poet who would walk into a tavern, begin reading poems to flabbergasted customers and capture the attention of serious beer-drinkers, TV sporks fans and shuffleboard contestants.
"The way I figure it," Etheridge said in a 1987 interview with William Thomas of the Scripps Howard News Service, "a poet has to learn to deal
57 with his audiences, even if that means drunks and hecklers. If a poet can say poetry in a bar, he can say it anywhere." And Etheridge has said it anywhere--in barbershops, beauty shops, college classrooms and prisons. In the summer of 1982, he was a Poet-in-Residence with the Academy of Prison Arts in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In the same interview, Etheridge said, "I still go to prisons and read because I feel blessed."
Surviving 16 years of imprisonment, I, too, feel blessed just to have been invited by Lou McKee to contribute to the Etheridge Knight issue of Painted Bride Quarterly.
My favorite poem by Etheridge Knight is "The Warden Said to Me the Other Day":
The warden said to me the other day
(innocently, I think), "Say, etheridge, how come the black boys don't run off like the white boys do?"
I lowered my jaw and scratched my head and said (innocently, I think), "Well, suh,
I ain't for sure, but I reckon it's cause we ain't got no wheres to run to."
As I suspected and later confirmed (see Etheridge's December 30, 1986 letter) this is a found poem, drawn from one of his 1960s prison experiences. The poem's simplicity, unadorned by figurative language, is the voice of self-realization, the speech of self-disclosure. The lack of ornamentation and the risk of personal exposure in this poem is what W.H. Auden (speaking of Cavafy) called the "only translatable element in poetry."
The poem's question, faithfully recorded from the warden's visit to the newspaper office, was poignantly answered in Etheridge's own voice: "we ain't got no wheres to run to." I have not been able to forget that answer. Can you? It helps one understand the existential angst of being black in America in the 1960s. It captures the sense of alienation felt by anyone who does not belong. Robert Frost described home as the place they have to take you in if you have to go there. What if there is no home, no promised land, no place of refuge? The raw terror of feeling exiled in America is awesome.
A month ago, hours before the sun came up in the morning so the riot here at Western Penitentiary could be televised, I watched six men wearing masks beat a man with iron pipes. He had "no wheres to run to." A friend of mine, a combat veteran, said it was just like after a fire-fight in Vietnam. The worst time was just before the sun came up. Once out of the dark, everything was better.
Thank you, Etheridge Knight, my brother, for walking out of the dark for us all.
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