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Friday, April 1, 2016


Rereading Poems from Prison

When Etheridge Knight autographed my copy of Poems from Prison (1968; 1st edition, fifth printing, March 1971), he wrote "Keep On! We gonna win." and signed  his name  "Imamu Etheridge Knight."  By designating himself a spiritual leader , he positioned himself to remind me that  some poets believe what they do pertains to mind, body, and spirit.   His urging me to "keep on" could be related to many activities, especially to  African and American imperatives .  In the 1970s, those imperatives had something to do with cultural nationalism and teaching.  His prediction that we will win something laid heavy weight on me and "all the other caged black cats everywhere" to whom he dedicated his book. And some caged tawny, white, and impractical cats were expected to share the weight.   In the 1970s, a  terrible beauty of optimism was frequently reborn.

It was (and still is) a funky deal when I first read stanza two of Knight's poem "On Universalism" ---

No universal laws

Of human misery

Create a common cause

Or common history

That ease black people's pains

Nor break black people's chains (25).

or the final, African American  haiku in a set of nine

Making jazz swing in

Seventeen syllable AIN'T

No square poet's job. (19)

and then discovered in the poem "It Was a Funky Deal" that what Knight had in mind was Malcolm's


You rocked too many boats, man.

Pulled too many coats, man.

Saw through the jive.

You reached the wild guys

Like me.  You and Bird.    (And that

Lil LeRoi cat.)

It was a funky deal. (28)

 The poems  trigger sensations that depend on locating the poet's language in realms of one's lived experiences as well as one's acquired knowledge of social and cultural operations.  In 2016, Knight's  Poems from Prison is  funky fresh in recalling the extreme pain of rebirth.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            April 1, 2016      

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