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The People's Poet

By Amy Lifson | HUMANITIES, January/February 1998 | Volume 19, Number 1

"Etheridge Knight had been saved by poetry," wrote fellow poet Yusef Komunyakaa about the black veteran and convict who was reborn as a poet. Komunyakaa is one of the lecturers in a series at Butler University honoring Knight, an Indianapolis poet who died in 1991 at the age of seventy. Knight's poetry was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and helped define the modern black literary movement of the sixties. Upcoming speakers are poet Mari Evans on February 9, Komunyakaa on March 19, and Henry Louis Gates on April 16.

Knight began writing poetry while he was in prison, serving a seven-year sentence for robbery. He was twenty-nine years old when he was sent to prison. His poetry grew out of the African- American tradition called "toasts"--long, recited poems that describe street life, usually in rhyming couplets. In an interview for the Colorado Review in 1987, Knight described his literary birth. "I first began to define myself as a poet in prison. Guys in the joint were my first primary audience. I was sending poems to guys in the joint before I started sending them anyplace else. If you can play a guitar or paint or say poems, you have an audience. And you get affirmed. I got a lot of support. Guys thought I functioned like a village scribe. On weekends, they would come to me and bring their letters, and I was supposed to be a poet so they'd have me write letters to their wives and sweethearts. You got to do a lot of relating if you're going to do that right. You've got to listen. You've got to hear their story."

His mentor became Gwendolyn Brooks, who was sent Knight's poetry by a publisher and began a correspondence with him in prison. Knight organized prison poetry workshops that Brooks conducted. About that time, Dudley Randall was starting Broadside Press to bring African American writing to African Americans. Randall found a match in Knight's poems that were able to intersect street life and more elite literary circles.

Knight's ability to engage white and black, rich and poor audiences was evident at the Free People's Poetry Workshops that he began around the country. The workshops, held in local bars, were places where struggling poets--whether they were homeless or college professors--could meet to talk about, perform, and listen to poetry. Knight's friend Fran Quinn says that finding the right pub space was very important to Knight. There had to be plenty of locals not there for the poetry--they were the litmus test. "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," Quinn remembers Knight saying to him. "The meetings were wide open to anyone that walked in. Sometimes Gwendolyn Brooks or Robert Bly would stop by and sit next to the drunk who wrote his poetry on scraps of paper," says Quinn.

Knight's legacy to Indianapolis, his hometown since childhood, include these workshops, which produced prize-winning poets such as Jared Carter and Chris Gilbert. Butler University houses Knight's collection of personal and literary papers from the last eleven years of his life. It includes professional and personal letters; manuscripts of unpublished poems, essays and short stories; and reviews, articles, and criticism. The collection has recently been cataloged and is available to researchers. Quinn hopes that the lecture series will spark more interest and research into Knight's work around the country, particularly in places like Worchester or Memphis where Knight lived and helped establish communities of poets.