On "For Malcolm, A Year After"
Patricia Liggins Hill
Knight’s "For Malcolm, A Year After," however, is a more successful ballad.
Knight was prompted to write this tribute to Malcolm X when he questioned a group of prisoners about Malcolm X the year after Malcolm’s assassination. When Knight asked them, "Hey, do you remember what day this is?", none of the prisoners remembered. Knight says, "So, it put me uptight. So, I went back to my cell and wrote this poem." Knight’s controlled anger is felt throughout the poem and its omnipresence is accentuated by his use of the ballad form (a b c b) to "compose for Red (Malcolm X) a proper verse." The poem is effective because the poet deliberately chooses a closed form in order to control his anger: "Adhere to foot and strict iamb;/Control the burst of angry words/Or they might boil and break the dam."
from "The New Black Aesthetic as a Counterpoetics: The Poetry of Etheridge Knight." Diss., Stanford University, 1977.
The political poetry written concurrently with "On Universalism" attests to the complexity of Knight's practice. His eulogy "For Malcolm, A Year After," originally published in Poems from Prison, carefully manipulates metrical tensions and rhyme schemes to make its statement of support for the nationalist warrior. Knight begins with a bitter statement that he will stay within the Euro-American tradition for fear that any formal departure might bring in its wake a self-destructive emotional explosion:
Compose for Red a proper verse;
Adhere to foot and strict iamb;
Control the burst of angry words
Or they might boil and break the dam.
Or they might boil and overflow
And drench, drown me, drive me mad.
Rhyme connects the form in the "iamb" and the anger in "dam" which he then inverts in "mad" to complete the conceptual sight-oriented off-rhyme. He concludes the opening section by at once embracing and rejecting the very language, the white man's language, in which he writes:
Make empty anglo tea lace words—
Make them dead white and dry bone bare.
The very words he molds into the "proper verse" embody the values of a literally murderous culture.
The second stanza emphasizes that while Knight uses the Euro-American culture's form, he uses it to advance the political cause of black nationalism. Inverting the traditional conceit of the poem living eternally despite the death of the man, Knight writes that his poem, an artifact of the oppressive culture, will die, but its message, the message of Malcolm X, will live:
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 concluding triplet of the poem, implicitly parodying the standard couplet form, further emphasizes the revolutionary emotion Inspired by both the life and death of Malcolm X:
Death might come singing sweet like C
Or knocking like the old folk say,
The moon and stars may pass away,
But not the anger of that day.
While Knight the singer works within traditional forms his vision is insistently that of the nationalist warrior.
from "The Poet, The Poem, The People: Etheridge Knight's Aesthetic." Obsidian 7.2-3 (Summer-Winter 1981).
Knight approaches the potential usefulness of the distinctions between written and oral poetic forms from a different angle in his elegy "For Malcolm, A Year After." Here the rigidity of written forms is invoked as a facilitating written structure for a dangerously consuming oral expression.
The grieving speaker desires to "compose himself" by composing a "proper verse" for his slain leader. Rejecting an array of more immediate and improvised black vernacular forms (sermons, songs, blues, and spoken narratives), the speaker chooses to articulate his grief for Malcolm X through the rigid ("proper," "strict," "empty" "dead," "dry," and in the second stanza "prim") forms of Anglo-European culture because those forms will stabilize his expression, reducing it perhaps but also allowing it to endure. Ironically, of course, while the iambic tetrameter and the perfect abcb rhymes function to order and compose the speaker's expression, the cadenced repetitions of phrases and alliterative sounds work toward just the opposite effect, to suggest a welling up of feeling. In the end the poem does not achieve a dualistic control of black feelings with white forms but an eloquent expression of feelings through a variety of poetic resources that are not culturally specific. Thus, "compose" rings with three crucial meanings: to control, to make, and to express. Like Knight's haiku, this reciprocal, mutually informing and accommodating relationship between written and oral poetic forms and performances in the elegy provides a helpful model of African-American poetry, not simply because it dramatizes playful adaptation and rich potential but also because it registers the tensions and limitations of any dualistic model of culture.
From "These Old Writing Paper Blues: The Blues Stanza and Literary Poetry." College Literature (1997).
Return to Etheridge Knight