Born in Corinth, Mississippi in 1931, and later moving to Paducah, Kentucky, Knight was one of seven children in a low-income family. Dropping out of school after the eighth grade, he soon realized there were few job opportunities for a young, relatively uneducated black man. His despair led him to drug addiction. In an effort to stop this downward spiral and regain control of his life, Knight joined the Army in 1947 where he served as a medical technician. He was discharged in 1951 after suffering a serious shrapnel wound which left him once again addicted to narcotics. He is often quoted as stating, “I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound and narcotics resurrected me.”
Struggling to support his addiction, Knight turned to crime. He was convicted of robbery in 1960, when he snatched an elderly woman’s purse. He believed his lengthy prison sentence to be unjust and racist. He soon channeled his outrage into poetry, discovering that expressing his feelings through poetry helped him achieve a sense of freedom from the oppression and futility he had felt all his life. He started by reciting “toasts”—long, narrative poems—from memory. However, it was not long before Knight found his own voice and began writing poetry and submitting it for publication. Laika Poetry Review reports that in order “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.” He attracted the attention of other great poets such as Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti, and Sonia Sanchez who were instrumental in securing his parole in 1968.
The publication of his first book, Poems from Prison, coincided with his release which catapulted Knight to the height of the Black Arts Movement. Jean Anaporte-Easton reports in Callaloo magazine that “…success carried Knight forward faster than he was able to move without losing his balance.”
Within a year of his parole, Knight was using heroin again. His personal life suffered and his marriages failed, and he was in and out of rehabilitation centers over the years, but his poetry continued to flourish.
Knight used unique mechanics in his poetry, giving his verse a sense of rhythm that reflected his background with oral tradition. His poems address topics such as racism, slavery, ancestry, and love. He remained a charismatic poetry reader and often read his poems in local bars. Knight states, “If you can stop a man with a full-kidney of beer heading for the men’s room, then you’ve got a good poem.”
Knight wrote his poetry for the common people. He promoted unity in the black community and among the average citizens. Stephen W. Baldwin notes, “Knight transcends racial and economic boundaries by discussing the human spirit’s desire for love, freedom, equality, and culture…[his] poetry touches the soul of the common working class citizen.”
His talents earned him several positions at such prestigious schools as the University of Pittsburgh, University of Hartford, and Lincoln University. In addition, Knight worked as a poetry editor for Motive magazine. He was honored with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1972 and 1980, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974.
In the late 1970’s, Knight resided in Memphis, Tennessee, where he continued to write poetry while also conducting workshops and collecting “toasts” to be published by the Center for Southern Folklore. He was featured in the Memphis Public Library’s video series, Talking Leaves. In 1980, Knight published Born of a Woman: New and Selected Poems, and in 1986, The Essential Etheridge Knight.
Knight received many honors for his poetry including the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award in Poetry, and an American Book Award. He also received National Book Award and Pulitzer nominations for his book Belly Song and Other Poems (1973).
Knight began his life as a troubled youth struggling to survive in a tough world. He continued to battle drug and alcohol addiction. However, instead of submitting to the demons that haunted him, he fought to retain control and, in the process, produced some of the most poignant poetry of his time.
Knight succumbed to lung cancer on March 10, 1991, in Indianapolis. But, by his own admission, Knight died several times: “I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life.” His voice continues to be heard through his poetry. Laika Poetry Review declares that, “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.”
Poems from Prison (poetry), 1968
Black Voices from Prison (poetry), 1972
Belly Song and Other Poems (poetry), 1973
Born of a Woman: New and Selected Poems (poetry), 1980
The Essential Etheridge Knight (poetry), 1986
Etheridge Knight’s page at Poets.org
Etheridge Knight’s page at the Poetry Foundation:
Etheridge’s Knight’s biography and sample poems at Modern American Poetry:
Etheridge Knight Festival of the Arts:
Etheridge Knight’s page at Mississippi Writers & Musicians: