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Thursday, March 23, 2006

"Hard Rock Returns..." - Etheridge Knight

Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

Hard Rock / was / "known not to take no shit
From nobody," and he had the scars to prove it:
Split purple lips, lumbed ears, welts above
His yellow eyes, and one long scar that cut
Across his temple and plowed through a thick
Canopy of kinky hair.

The WORD / was / that Hard Rock wasn't a mean nigger
Anymore, that the doctors had bored a hole in his head,
Cut out part of his brain, and shot electricity
Through the rest. When they brought Hard Rock back,
Handcuffed and chained, he was turned loose,
Like a freshly gelded stallion, to try his new status.
And we all waited and watched, like a herd of sheep,
To see if the WORD was true.

As we waited we wrapped ourselves in the cloak
Of his exploits: "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 had once bit
A screw on the thumb and poisoned him with syphilitic spit.

The testing came, to see if Hard Rock was really tame.
A hillbilly called him a black son of a bitch
And didn't lose his teeth, 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 knotholes in a fence.

And even after we discovered that it took Hard Rock
Exactly 3 minutes to tell you his first name,
We told ourselves that he had just wised up,
Was being cool; but we could not fool ourselves for long,
And 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,
The fears of years, like a biting whip,
Had cut deep bloody grooves
Across our backs.

- Etheridge Knight

“Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminally Insane” is from THE ESSENTIAL ETHERIDGE KNIGHT, by Etheridge Knight, Copyright Sign 1986. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by the kind permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

The first poet Etheridge Knight ever met was a guy called Hound Mouth, a street lyricist who haunted the local park rapping about floods and the Titanic, “pool-shooting monkeys” and dancehalls going up in smoke in Tupelo, Mississippi. It all just spilled out of his head. Nothing was written down. He was passing down these old stories and within each one were articulated worlds of joy and hope and discontent. Most people would have walked on by and taken Hound Mouth for a headcase but something in it showed Knight the way.

Born on the 19th of April 1931 in Corinth, Mississippi Etheridge Knight was one of seven children in a struggling southern black family. When he was a child they moved to Paducah, Kentucky. Determined to escape the confines of small town life Knight ran away from home a few times before finally dropping out of school in the ninth grade. He bummed around for a while shining shoes for change and experimenting with drugs. At the age of seventeen he forged his parent’s signatures to enter the army and escaped from a backwater existence only to plunge into active service in the Korean War. Years later he came back disillusioned, discharged with an agonising shrapnel injury that had given him a deep and enduring addiction to morphine. In street terms he was arriving back a heroin addict. Drifting around the dives and pool halls of Indianapolis he spent the next few years hustling and committing petty crimes to fuel his habit. In 1960 it caught up with him. Arrested for stealing an old woman’s purse he was charged and convicted of armed robbery and, despite having an esteemed military record serving his country, was sent down for eight years.

In his first few months of incarceration Knight was in such a disturbed state he later couldn’t recall a single detail of the time. Transferred from the State Reformatory to Indiana State Prison he was assigned the number 35652 and faced the all too familiar fate of young black males then and now. It seemed he was doomed to an early grave or a life wasting away behind bars. And yet faced with a choice between “hustling and poeting” he slowly found a purpose. From writing letters for fellow inmates to scripting a column for the prison newspaper he embarked on a new path. Poetry, as he would later claim, brought him back to life. In these early days his form of expression was “toasting” a precursor of rapping popular in the dancehalls of Kingston, Jamaica but also on the streets of African-American neighbourhoods. Knight employed this rhythmic form of storytelling with relish and gained a reputation for his skills among the inmates. And prison forged the poet he would be. Among the convicts of Indiana State Prison no trickery or pretence or snobbery would be tolerated. His work would be honest, fearlessly defiant, devoid of pomposity, proudly working class. There would be no bullshitting in Knight’s writing. Authenticity was everything.

To survive mentally and physically in prison Knight began to record honest depictions of his feelings and reactions to everything around him. The effects were stunning. Feelings of sheer horror and wonder towards the world have rarely been more incandescently burned onto the page in verse form. After hearing about the gang rape of a newly convicted young black man in the prison’s laundry room he wrote “For Freckled-Faced Gerald”- “Take Gerald. Sixteen years hadn't even done/a good job on his voice. He didn't even know/how to talk tough, or how to hide the glow/of life before he was thrown in as "pigmeat"/for the buzzards to eat… Gerald, sun-kissed ten thousand times on the nose/and cheeks, didn't stand a chance…”
In “Cell Song” he briefly transcended his despair, “Come now, etheridge, don't/be a savior; take your words and scrape/ the sky, shake rain/on the desert.”
"He Sees Through Stone" took this one step further, depicting an elderly prisoner who can venture beyond the jail in his mind.

On occasion the lowest moments brought the most inspired musings. Whilst spending a month in the solitary confinement of the hole Knight created “The Idea Of Ancestry” an attempt to immerse himself in the comfort of his roots and prevent himself going mad. The poem is simply a masterpiece. In the midst of his loneliness he surrounded himself with thoughts of his family, surveying the grandmother who keeps everyone’s birth date and death date written in her Bible, the empty space of the uncle who’d gone missing, the graves of his grandfathers “in the brown hills and red gullies of Mississippi” that call to him - “I am all of them; they are all of me. They/Are farmers, I am thief, I am me, they are thee.”
Conjuring up evocative images he recalls the affection of his family, “I walked barefooted in my grandmother's backyard/I smelled the old/land and the woods / I sipped cornwhiskey from fruit jars with the men” but even this paradise cannot save him from addiction or ultimately himself. At the end of his imaginings he finds himself still in his cell and the distance between his family, his future and his solitary confinement reasserts itself, all the more poignantly. As the Hebrew saying goes good times recalled in bad are agonising to bear.

Though Knight was writing about his own personal experiences of jail, addiction and struggling to survive his themes of imprisonment, black identity and the yearning for liberation mirrored what was going on outside the prison walls. This was the time of Rosa Parks, the Freedom Rides and the Birmingham riots, of black men and women getting batoned on the street by the US police for simply standing up for every principle America was supposed to have been founded upon. Dr Martin Luther King Jnr was prophesising a time when the apartheid of segregation would be overthrown and the Jim Crow laws, “Blacks need not apply” signs and the KKK would be consigned to the dustbin of history where they belonged. Founded by the radicals Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Richard Aoki the Black Panthers were patrolling black areas in countless major cities, educating and arming their communities against a frequently racist police force. By the time Knight was released Dr King had been murdered and cities all across America were in flame. His speech beginning “I have a dream…” seemed already a tragic distant memory, now Bobby Seale was preaching, “We’re gonna walk up on this nation, we’re gonna walk up on this racist power stucture and we’re gonna say to the whole damn government: “Stick ‘em up muthafucka, this is a hold-up! We’ve come for what’s ours!”

From within the prison walls Etheridge Knight captured the spirit of the times and people were listening. “Two beautiful people man” Knight enthused of Gwendolyn Brooks, the brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning poet laureate of Illinois, and Dudley Randall. The two writers began visiting him, bringing his work to an outside audience. In 1968 his first book Poems From Prison was published by Randall’s Broadside Press while Knight was still languishing in prison. The book burst into the collective consciousness, capturing the revolutionary zeal and the longing for black emancipation of the time. The political establishment had declared war upon the best of its youth, those who had dared to stand up for the values of liberty and equality. They were being batoned outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago, shot in Kent State University, conscripted and slaughtered in Vietnam attempting to bomb a proud people back into the Stone Age. But they were changing the world. Knight’s book both inspired and chronicled these happenings. It became a symbol of defiance, as pivotal a piece of revolutionary iconography as Situationist graffiti on the streets of Paris, Black Panther signs at the Olympics, Che Guevara flags or “You Are Now Entering Free Derry” painted on a gable wall. It happened that it was also a fucking fine book of poetry.

In such an enlightened radical climate Knight emerged a hero of sorts. Shortly after being released he married the revolutionary poet/playwright Sonia Sanchez, with whom he had been in correspondence, and was embraced by the literary counterculture. They had three children together and formed the Broadside Quartet with fellow poets Nikki Giovanni and Haki R. Madhubuti. And yet as much as the future seemed open he still struggled, labouring through frequent bouts of addiction even as his poetry was reaping awards and recognition.

The late 60’s proved to be not just a renaissance for black writing (from James Baldwin’s “Invisible Man” to Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul On Ice”) but was also a time when new artforms evolved. In Harlem Le Roi Jones was kicking off the influential Black Arts Repertory Theatre asserting in his poem “Black Art,” “We demand poems that kill.” Nearby was the Harlem Writers Guild led by John O. Killens, which featured future Nobel laureate Maya Angelou and Sarah Wright amongst others. In Manhattan’s Lower East Side the Umbra collective had been born and would develop into the Uptown Writers Movement. Many of these artistic/social endeavours were backed up by heavyweight political forces like the Revolutionary Action Movement and the Nation Of Islam. One centre of revolutionary black artistry would be the Black Panther’s Bay Area of San Francisco; another was Harlem, the traditional setting of black consciousness since the pioneering days of the Harlem Renaissance, the third was Knight’s regular haunt Detroit.

Alongside diverse talents like the Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron Etheridge Knight was at the forefront of what would many years later be baptised hip-hop. Where the Beats had performed their rhapsodies to the jazz of Charlie Parker or John Coltrane new black poetry, rhythmic and socially aware, was being performed alongside rhythm & blues and funk. Changing times needed changing artforms. Knight admitted the pressing need to do something fresh saying that the blues “allows me to get it out; it allows me to live. It does not move me to get up and do anything about it. It moves me to accept a kick in the ass and still make it.” The blues for all its many virtues wasn’t revolutionary, it taught you how to endure hardship but it didn’t teach you how to overthrow it, to create something new. It helped you to keep keeping on when perhaps the time had come to say, “Enough’s enough!”

This new black poetry movement was so compelling because it was never separated from reality. Knight believed that European poetry was almost beyond all hope because, since the time of Plato, it had been dislocated from real life. It had become something cold, distant, intellectual, bourgeois, an academic pursuit for the elite. It had lost its way. Any great European poet in the last thousand years had existed in spite of, and not because of, the prevailing literary establishment and it’s traditionalist consensus. The great poets the Rimbauds, Shakespeares, Marlowes, Byrons, Keats were all rebels who, once safely six feet under, were stolen by the very elite who’d either neglected or persecuted them when they were alive. For Knight poetry was no privileged indulgence it was as intrinsic to life as breathing or drinking or making love or travelling, it was something that would express all the heady awe and anger in life. African-American culture had never lost the tradition of poetry as spoken word, as the distillation of everyday life from field hollers to spirituals to the blues. Black poetry remained entwined in real life, in community, in god and work and love and protest. It was accessible, passionate, life affirming and in being so promised to be a storm that would sweep away all the tired old literary monoliths. You can hear it threatening to erupt in his memorial for Malcolm X "For Malcolm, A Year After" – “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.”

The next few years were booming for Knight. In 1970 he edited, and contributed to, Voci Dal Caracere (Black Voices From Prison) a selection of writings from inmates at his former prison commissioned by the Italian sociologist and historian Roberto Giammanco. Such was the refreshing radicalism of the time for three years he held poet-in residence positions in Lincoln University, the University of Hartford and the University of Pittsburgh. He led Free People’s Poetry Workshops, anyone and everyone welcome. He was co-editor of Black Box in Washington and received a National Endowment for the Arts Award of $5000. Today it all seems indicative of the sixties, a time of almost unbelievable promise. And we now know how it was squandered, how in the end the bastards won and how conservative, for all our celebrity distractions and our weekend hedonisms, these times really are compared to those. “The bums lost” as Lebowski said.

Knight struggled to stay on the wagon. His marriage to Sanchez fell apart and they divorced in 1970. There’s the broken-hearted blues of “Feeling Fucked Up” – his lament for losing his girl, “Fuck Coltrane and music and clouds drifting in the sky/ fuck the sea and trees and the sky and birds/ and alligators and all the animals that roam the earth” fuck everything in existence cause his girl has left him. Soon to be married to Mary Ann McAnally, with whom he’d have two children, he flitted between hospitalisations and attempts to free himself of his heroin and alcohol demons. Despite, or perhaps because of, this he produced what’s seen as his most eclectic, challenging and rewarding work Belly Song and Other Poems (1973). A thrilling collection it captures an artist exploring uncharted waters. Wilfully experimental yet musical he delved further into rhythm and an evocative form of romanticism. In “For The Black Poets Who Think Of Suicide” he answers Hamlet’s question “To be or not to be?” by urging, “Black poets should live—not leap…Let all Black Poets die as trumpets/And be buried in the dust of marching feet.”
In “The Bones Of My Father” he conjures up images that stay burned in your mind long after you’ve read them, “There are no dry bones/here in this valley. The skull/of my father grins/at the Mississippi moon/from the bottom/of the Tallahatchie/the bones of my father/are buried in the mud/of these creeks and brooks that twist/and flow their secrets to the sea.” Belly Song earned him universal acclaim, a directorship in the Indianapolis “Self Development Through The Arts” project, a $12,000 Guggenheim Fellowship Award and a Pulitzer Prize nomination.

Just as it seemed it had the world to gain the black arts movement, and indeed almost all the revolutionary forces, in America fizzled out. There’s no single explanation for what happened. Altamont, the Manson Family, the deaths of hippy icons (Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin), the elevation of cocaine and heroin over cannabis and LSD, the inevitable comedown all played their part. But even more significant was that generation’s surrender to the petty miseries of domestic life – marriages, children, mortgages, careers all those everyday horrors. Most, it seemed, were only ever at play. Hippies became yuppies, set up computers firms and ice cream factories, gave up easy living and civil rights for the rat race. The carrot proved much more effective than the stick.

The black radical movement subsided due to a similar mix of repression, despondency and responsibility. Their leaders were dead: Malcolm X and Dr King had been assassinated shortly to be followed by the leading figures of the Black Panther movement gunned down one by one in confrontations with government forces. Then there were the rival factions, the internal disputes, the CIA, the IRS.

Just as damaging was the absorption of the radical into the mainstream. Dissent became a fashion accessory and not a state of mind. Radical culture went from being a genuinely dangerous force to being a sociological module on university courses almost over night. Radicals were paraded at the parties of Hollywood producers, Black Panthers were invited to cheese and wine parties at Leonard Bernstein’s luxury Park Avenue apartment (a time expertly captured in Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers). You were nobody unless you had the phone number of one of these hip urban guerrillas. Economically Nixon’s idea of killing the radical movement with kindness worked. The glittering promise of Black Capitalism overtook Black Power. Academically “safe” writers and political figures were raised up as spokes-people while radicals were isolated. You didn’t have to be shot down or imprisoned to have been picked off.

Divorcing from McAnally in ‘77 Knight wed Charlene Blackburn with whom he had a son the following year. His next work the tender Born of a Woman (1980) celebrated the life-giving characteristics of women in contrast to the brutality of men culminating in the universal call for solidarity of "Con/tin/u/way/shun Blues" with its tinge of sadness, “Cause even when we be free, baby/ Lord knows we still have to die.”

Throughout the Eighties Knight’s reputation was consolidated. In 1986 the University of Pittsburgh Press released the definitive collection The Essential Etheridge Knight a book of utter genius that should be as widespread as Gideon Bibles. His accolades were bolstered with a Shelley Award from the Poetry Society of America and an honorary Bachelor of Arts Degree from Martin University. Sadly in the end the success, or even poetry itself, wasn’t enough to save him. Struggling to keep on the straight and narrow right up until the end he married twice to Evelyn Brown and Elizabeth McKim respectively. In 1991, several weeks short of his 60th birthday, he succumbed to cancer, which had spread from his lungs to his liver. Posthumously he received the Indiana Governor's Award for Literature, was inducted into the Literary Hall of Fame at the 8th Annual Gwendolyn Brooks Conference in Chicago, Illinois and had a Festival of Arts initiated in his honour to promote verbal arts and foster artistic talent in working class black areas.

The list of honours may appear to signify a drift into respectability but don’t be fooled. Even though his poems were written decades ago they make vast swathes of contemporary poetry, and indeed hip-hop, sound conservative, toothless, redundant. There are few writers today who can come near his power, his music and his eloquence. To call him the forefather of modern black poets like Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Chuck D is to do him both a service and a disservice. For while they are undoubted heirs to Knight’s legacy he is too fierce, too turbulent, too exciting to ever be some lofty respectable father figure. Blazing into being his poems invoke the deepest feelings of rage and awe and though they are almost riotous in intent and fury they ultimately seek to make the world a fairer and, in doing so, a more beautiful place. “Hard Rock…” requires no explanation, just read and re-read it and witness the immense power of words, words as explosives, words that seek to change the way we perceive everything and the writer as a prophet, a lone voice in the wilderness calling on us all.

The Essential Etheridge Knight can be purchased at the University of Pittsburgh Press website: