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On Etheridge Knight's Poetry

Joyce Ann Joyce

Any veteran reader of Etheridge Knight's poetry or anyone who has heard him read will have his or her favorite poems such as those that he read most frequently, which include "Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane," "The Violent Space," "It Was a Funky Deal," and "Dark Prophecy: I Sing of Shine" as we as some of the poems I discussed above. His skilled use of the Black vernacular also manifests itself in the many haiku poems of which he was quite fond. Using this brief form that demanded precision to hone his skill, Knight produced poetry that was humorous, urbane or sophisticated, colloquial, historical, political, musical, rhythmical, and spiritual.

A final characteristic of Knight's poetry that is reflective of an African philosophical tradition rather than a Euro-American worldview is the spiritual tradition of paying homage to the ancestors. This method of writing poems with famous cultural or influential Black political and literary leaders as subject or as poetic references gained popularity in the late 1960s and continues to dominate African-American poetry. In "The Bones of My Father," the style of Knight's poem technically echoes Henry Dumas' short story "Ark of Bones," Richard Wright's poem "Between the World and Men as well as Langston Hughes' "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." "On Watching Politicians Perform at Martin Luther King's Funeral," "For Malcolm, a Year Later" and "It Was a Funky Deal" pay tribute to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X respectively while "For Langston Hughes" obviously pays homage to the bard of the Harlem Renaissance.

Knight's tribute to the ancestors emerges as a ritualistic drama in which the values of the poet's ancestors are reborn, "redefined, reaffirmed and reinterpreted, at once giving them added viability and sacralizing their new form" (Ani 9).This African philosophical perspective differs significantly from the Eurocentric concept of intertextuality that confines itself to reading texts only within the context of other texts. Clearly, the African-American poetic tradition, particularly since the 1960s, challenges a Eurocentric definition of poetry and simultaneously demands that our critical exegesis begins with an emic critical perspective before moving to an etic critical investigation that runs the risk of estranging the poets from their tradition and the community about which they write. A truly African oral performer, Etheridge Knight's subjects grew out of his and his people's lives. And viewed in the context of an African philosophical/aesthetic tradition, his poetry places him among those at the vanguard of any discussion of the history of African-American poetic letters.

from "The Poetry of Etheridge Knight: A Reflection of an African Philosophical/Aesthetic Worldview." The Worchester Review. 19.1-2, 1998.

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