On "Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane"
J. Paul Hunter
The picture of Hard Rock as a kind of hero to other prison inmates is established early in the poem through a retelling of the legends circulated about him; the straightforward chronology of the poem sets up the mystery of how he will react after his "treatment" in the hospital. The poem identifies with those who wait; they are hopeful that Hard Rock's spirit has not been broken by surgery or shock treatments, and the lines crawl almost to a stop with disappointment in stanza four. The "nothing" ( line 27) of Hard Rock's response to teasing and taunting and the emptiness of his eyes ("1ike knot holes in a fence," line 28) reduce the heroic hopes and illusions to despair. The final stanza recounts the observers' attempts to reinterpret, to hang onto hope that their symbol of heroism could stand up against the best efforts to tame him, but the spirit has gone out of the hero-worshipers too, and the poem records them as beaten, conformed, deprived of their spirit as Hard Rock has been of his. The poem records the despair of the hopeless and it protests against the exercise of power that can curb even as rebellious a figure as Hard Rock.
from The Norton Introduction to Poetry. Copyright © 1986, 1981, 1973 by W. W. Norton and Company, Inc.
Patricia Alveda Liggens Hill
Knight, in his search for a written form in which he could adequately express his own poetic voice and rhythms, also tries the basic iambic mater. An example is his poem "Hard Rock Returns to Prison From The Hospital for the Criminal Insane":
[. . . .]
Robert Bly’s critical assessment of the poem is quite accurate. He maintains that the iambic meter in the poem is incompatible with Knight’s private power. He notices "the amazing business of the iambic meter in it [the poem], which I understand partly as someone who is writing in prison, or, in some way is unsure of what he should be doing in poetry." The most striking quality in the poem, however, is Knight’s ability to draw dramatic character. On this point, Bly elaborates:
What is amazing about this ["Hard Rock"] was a quality that you see in Chaucer or in ancient poetry in which they are able actually to create another living person who is not them, not their persona, [ . . .] or nothing like that—but another completely different person—and you see this person over a stretch of time, moreover.
Knight’s creation of Hard Rock as a Black legendary hero is quite successful. Hard Rock has come to symbolize the Black man inside and outside prison walls who has been eventually broken by the overpowering forces in an oppressive society. To the poet, Hard Rock had been the epitome of what the Black man views as his freedom—being his own man: "[Hard Rock] is known not to take no shit/from Nobody," and "he had the scars to prove it." Now, the prisoners hear that he had changed; the prison system had inflicted a lobotomy upon him. In order to quell his adamancy, doctors had tampered with his brain—the seat of his spirit. They had not cut off his legs to restrict his movement—his movement was already restricted in the "Hole"; instead, they cut out his brain to restrict his free thinking.
Much of Hard Rock’s character is skillfully drawn through the prisoners’ dialogues which are filled with Black ghetto speech patterns. One of the most effective dialogues is the one in which the prisoners reminisce about Hard Rock and the freedom of spirit he once exhibited: "Man, the last time, it took eight/Screws to put him in the Hole!" "Yeah, remember when he/Smacked the captain with his dinner tray? He set/The record for time in the Hole – 67 straight days!/01 Hard Rock! Man, that’s one crazy nigger." Hard Rock is, at first, the living example of a free man imprisoned; but, once his brain cells are mutilated, his spirit is muted as well. Once the Black man whom they believed could not be broken is spiritless, the prisoners "turned away, our eyes on the ground. Crushed./He had been our Destroyer, the doer of things/We dreamed of doing but could not bring ourselves to do." "Hard Rock" has become a classic in Black poetry. Knight’s skill in drawing dramatic character, which he had developed as a toast-teller, is clearly shown. But, the fact that he is seen still searching for an adequate, striking written mode of expression is also evident.
from "The New Black Aesthetic as a Counterpoetics: The Poetry of Etheridge Knight." Diss., Stanford University, 1977. Copyright © 1977 by Patricia Alveda Liggins Hill
As his Malcolm X poems memorialized and immortalized the historical Malcolm X by bringing the meaning of the death of the man to life, the "Hard Rock" poem brings the fictional Hardrock to life with what Robert Bly has called Chaucerian power. Reprinted in Knight's Born of a Woman. New and Selected Poems, "Hard Rock" presents the modern, prison version of the "bad" or "mean" "nigger," meaning a man who fights racism and oppression; Hardrock is a tragic figure since the modern technology of brain surgery has destroyed the character that beatings and prison could not.
What renders the picture of Hardrock even more powerful is the first person plural persona's voice which uses black, prison, and standard vocabulary to explain what Hardrock's destruction means to the "we" speaking in the poem. The prisoners "all waited and watched, like a herd of sheep," to see if Hardrock had become a docile "good nigger"; the speaker says they "wrapped" themselves "in the cloak/Of his exploits" since Hardrock was their "Destroyer, the doer of things,/We dreamed of doing but could not bring ourselves to do"; for the "fears of years, like a biting whip,/ Had cut deep bloody grooves/Across our backs." The doubly tragic destruction of Hardrock the individual and of the hope he represented for others is memorably communicated through the vitality of the characters, although some readers, like Bly, are disturbed by the iambic meter of the poem that does not seem to do the characters or the experience justice.
From Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 41: Afro-American Poets Since 1955. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Trudier Harris and Thadious M. Davis. Copyright © 1985 by the Gale Group.
Patricia Liggins Hill
"Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane" also attempts to answer this question: Can anything good come out of prison; can a man be free while in prison? According to H. Bruce Franklin in "The Literature of the American Prison," the name of Knight's hero, "Hard Rock," is a complicated pun on the American penal system and rock/jazz music as well. To the poet, Hard Rock epitomizes freedom. Hard Rock "is known not to take no shit/from nobody, " and "he had the scars to prove it." Hard Rock is his own person--a "free man," though imprisoned. Unable to bear this, "the doctors had bored a hole in his head,/Cut out part of his brain, and shot electricity/ Through the rest." The doctors had not cut off Hard Rock's legs to restrict his movement--his movement was already restricted in "the violent space," "the Hole"--; instead, they cut out his brain to restrict his free thinking.
The prisoners reminisce about Hard Rock and his free spirit, which they had admired:
". . . Man, the last time, it took eight
Screws to put him in the Hole." "Yeah, remember when he
Smacked the captain with his dinner tray?" "He set
the record for time in the Hole -- 67 straight days !"
"Ol Hard Rock! man, that's one crazy nigger."
And then the jewel of a myth that Hard Rock once bit
A screw on the thumb and poisoned him with syphilitic spit.
Hard Rock was, at one time, the living example of a free man imprisoned. But after they tampered with his brain, his spirit suddenly "was really tame/. . . a screw who knew Hard Rock/From before shook him down and barked in his face/And Hard Rock did nothing. Just grinned and looked silly./His eyes empty like knot holes in a fence." Hard Rock, the Black man whom they believed could not be smashed, is suddenly broken: ". . . we turned away, our eyes on the ground. Crushed./He had been our Destroyer, the doer of things/We dreamed of doing but could not bring ourselves to do." Hard Rock comes to symbolize the Black man inside and outside of prison walls who has been broken, eventually, by the overpowering forces in an oppressive society.
From "The Violent Space": The Function of the New Black Aesthetic in Etheridge Knights Prison Poetry." Black American Literature Forum. (1980).
In a grand poem already anthologized by Dudley Randall in his excellent collection, The Black Poets (1971), Knight tells of his family ("The Idea of Ancestry"): "Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black / faces. . . . / They stare / across the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I know--mine." Another poem immortalizes a moment of prison despair; "Hard Rock Returns to Prison From the Hospital for the Criminal Insane":
Hard Rock was "known not to take no shit
From nobody," and he had the scars to prove it:
Split purple lips, lumped ears, welts above
His yellow eyes, and one long scar that cut
Across his temple and plowed through a thick
Canopy of kinky hair.
Hard Rock goes under, lobotomized, as the poem knows he will, but the lumps and the welts stay in the poem unrepaired and unrepentant. Knight's other side voices a longing no less deep than the yearning of the spirituals it remembers in its wish for Mississippi.
One day we shall all go back--
we shall surely all go back (down home. . .
and the shame will leave our children's eyes (down home ...
from Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980. Copyright © 1980 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
The powerful poem, "Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane," (pp. 7-8) exemplifies the fate of fierce blackness. Among inmates Hard Rock is the hero, for he fights on behalf of everyone and achieves legendary status for his opposition to authority: "Man, the last time, it took eight/ Screws to put him in the Hole." Hard Rock is given a frontal lobotomy and turned into a vegetable. The medical authorities replace the prison authorities and wield a more damaging, more distant power. In a searing simile, Knight describes the inmates' reaction to Hard Rock's defeat: "The fears of years, like a biting whip,/ Had cut grooves too deeply across our backs." Prisoners, like slaves, have succumbed to centuries of punishment and deprivation. Technology and science have broken the back of even the greatest "doer of things." In referring to the new Hard Rock as a "freshly gelded stallion," he stresses the destruction of black manhood.
from "Loud Men: The Poetic Visions of Robert Bly, Ice Cube, and Etheridge Knight." The Journal of Men's Studies. 6.2 (Winter 1998).
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