Dish poetry editor Alice Quinn writes:
Etheridge Knight was born in Mississippi in 1931. He began writing poetry as an inmate in the Indiana State Prison during the 1960s and published his first collection, Poems from Prison, in 1968. The capsule biography available on the Poetry Foundation’s website describes Knight as an accomplished reciter of “‘toasts’—long, memorized, narrative poems, often in rhymed couplets”—by the time he entered prison.
While there, he was encouraged by the prominent poet Dudley Randall, who established the Broadside Press in 1965, publishing poets on the order of Melvin Tolson, Sonia Sanchez, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Margaret Walker. Randall was also a remarkable anthologist perhaps best known for his groundbreaking volume, The Black Poets, published in 1971 and for many years the most popular and significant gathering of work by African American poets.
Galway Kinnell and Gwendolyn Brooks are just two of the distinguished contemporaries who admired Knight’s work, which was nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He was also a Guggenheim Foundation Fellow. Brooks wrote:
The warmth of this poet is abruptly robust.
The music that seems effortless is exquisitely carved.
Since Etheridge Knight is not your stifled artiste, there is air in these poems.
And there is blackness, inclusive, possessed and given; freed and terrible and beautiful.
“A Watts Mother Mourns While Boiling Beans” by Etheridge Knight:
The blossoming flower of my life is roaming
in the night, and I think surely
that never since he was born
have I been free from fright.
My boy is bold, and his blood
grows quickly hot/ even now
he could be crawling in the street
bleeding out his life, likely as not.
Come home, my bold and restless son.—Stop
my heart’s yearning! But I must quit
this thinking—my husband is coming
and the beans are burning.
(From Born of a Woman: New and Selected Poems by Etheridge Knight. Photo by Amy Riddle)