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.
Out of the huge sadness of the Iliad
(I was reading Book Fifteen when you died)
Waterbirds are calling—barnacle geese,
Grey herons and long-necked whooper swans—
Waterbirds in flight over a water-meadow,
Honking, settling in front of one another,
Proud of their feather-power—taking me back
To the camogie pitch where your heart failed.
Waterbirds are calling—barnacle geese,
Grey herons and long-necked whooper swans.
Michael Longley’s The Stairwell, just published by Wake Forest Press, the premier publisher of Irish poets in America, is his thirteenth collection. He has also edited 20th Century Irish Poems and selections of the work of some of his favorite poets—among them Louis MacNeice, Brendan Kennelly, and Robert Graves, and he is the author of a winning memoir, Tuppeny Stung. He is a superb elegist and his poems about birds, children, and the natural world – exquisitely delicate – are among his most enchanting, often just four lines long, or two.
We’ll start with four of these shorter poems:
“Maisie at Dawn”:
Wordless in dawnlight
She talks to herself,
A waterlily budding.
Following the ponies’ hoof-prints
And your own muddy track, I find
Sweet pink nipples, wild raspberries,
A surprise among the brambles.
at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin
It must have been God, or rather, Yahweh
Who scattered the granite slabs with hailstones
And threw them from His Hand so accurately
Not one Jew was uncommemorated.
They kept you refrigerated for days, my twin.
I kissed your forehead where the frost was fading.
This is the multitude, the beasts
you wanted to show me, drawing me
upstream, all morning up through wind-
scoured heather to the hillcrest.
Below us, in the next glen, is the grave
calm brotherhood, descended
out of winter, out of hunger, kneeling
like the signatories of a covenant;
their weighty, antique-polished antlers
rising above the vegetation
like masts in a harbor, or city spires.
We lie close together, and though the wind
whips away our man-and-woman smell,
every stag-face seems to look toward us, toward,
but not to us: we’re held, and hold them,
in civil regard. I suspect you’d
hoped to impress me, to lift to my sight
our shared country, lead me deeper
into what you know, but loath
to cause fear you’re already moving
quietly away, sure I’ll go with you,
as I would now, anywhere.
The Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie, born in 1962, is the author of seven collections, including The Overhaul, just published here by Graywolf Press and shortlisted for the T.S.Eliot Prize when it was published in 2012 in Great Britain. Too few poets from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales are published here. She’s one to follow along with the Irish poet Michael Longley, who also has a new volume. We’ll feature Jamie this week and Longley next.
“Hawk and Shadow” by Kathleen Jamie:
I watched a hawk
glide low across the hill,
her own dark shape
in her talons like a kill.
She tilted her wings,
fell into the air—
the shadow coursed on
without her, like a hare.
Being out of sorts
with my so-called soul,
part unhooked hawk,
part shadow on parole,
I played fast and loose:
keeping one in sight
while forsaking the other.
The hawk gained height:
Her mate on the ground
began to fade,
till hill and sky were empty
and I was afraid.
Dish poetry editor Alice Quinn – giving us a brief respite from all the mayhem in France right now – builds on this poem and this one from last weekend:
Our last choice (so far!) from the Irish anthology, Lifelines: New and Collected, Letters from Famous People About Their Favourite Poem, is Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Manners,” chosen by contemporary Irish poet Vona Groarke, who wrote, “It records an age and a state of mind entirely without cynicism: a secure, small world in which no-one can lose his way. The child-like speaking voice is brilliantly achieved with rudimentary, sing-song rhymes which accommodate the jolly generosity and good faith of the child and her grandfather….
Hovering at the edge of its simplicity is something much darker, suggested by the obscured faces of the passengers in the cars: a future in which the values of the child and her grandfather will be as outmoded as their wagon seat; an impersonal, technological world which will have no place for the gentle intimacy of manners. The poem marks the belated transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries, and from innocence to painful experience. Its success lies, I think, in doing so without the slightest trace of either rhetoric or sentiment.”
“Manners” by Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979):
For a Child of 1918
My grandfather said to me
as we sat on the wagon seat,
‘Be sure to remember to always
speak to everyone you meet.’