Etheridge Knight was an African-American poet who became a notable poet in 1968 with his debut volume, Poems from Prison.


Etheridge Knight was born on April 19, 1931 in Corinth, Mississippi. He was one of seven children in a poor family, and only completed a ninth-grade education. Spending many of his adolescent years working in pool halls, bars, and juke joints, he mastered the art of "telling toasts". Toasts are long narrative poems coming from an oral tradition which are performed from memory and with spirit. This environment honed his poetic experience, however, it also introduced him to drugs. He became addicted to drugs at an early age.

He joined the U.S. Army, serving as a medical technician in the Korean War.he was discharged from service in 1951, after suffering from a shrapnel wound that caused him to fall deeper into his drug addiction. After his time in the Army he settled in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he picked up the art of telling toasts, which are traditional, black, oral narrative poems acted out in a theatrical manner. During this time, he still maintained his addiction to heroin.

Arrested in Indianapolis for stealing a purse in 1960, Knight was imprisoned for eight years. He recounts this experience in verse in Poems from Prison and in prose in the anthology Black Voices from Prison (1970; originally published two years earlier in Italian as Voce negre dal carcere).

He emerged as the voice of the black aesthetic movement with his first volume of verse Poems from Prison (1968). His poetry was a combination of "toasts" and a concern for freedom from oppression.

After his release from prison he married fellow poet Sonia Sanchez only to divorce her two years later. Knight taught at various universities and contributed to several magazines, working for two years as an editor of Motive and as a contributing editor of New Letters (1974). He experimented with rhythmic forms of punctuation in Belly Song and Other Poems (1973), which addressed the themes of ancestry, racism, and love in Born of a Woman (1980) - a work that balances personal suffering with affirmation - he introduced the concept of the poet as a "meddler" who forms a trinity with the poem and the reader. Much of his verse was collected in The Essential Etheridge Knight (1986).

Knight's books and oral performances awarded him both popular and critical acclaim. He received honors from such institutions as the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Poetry Society of America. In 1990 he earned a bachelor's degree in American poetry and criminal justice from Martin Center University in Indianapolis.

He married Mary McNally in 1972, and fathered her two children. They settled in Minneapolis, Minnesota until they separated in 1977. He then resided in Memphis, Tennessee where he received Methadone treatments. Knight rose from a life of poverty, crime, and drug addiction to become exactly what he expressed in his notebook in 1965: a voice that was heard and helped his people. Knight died in Indianapolis, Indiana, of lung cancer on March 10, 1991.

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