Article Title

Tough Eloquence


I began reading Etheridge Knight's poetry in the early 1970s, and what immediately caught my attention was his ability to balance an eloquence and toughness, exhibiting a complex man behind the words. His technique and content were one—the profane alongside the sacred—accomplished without disturbing the poem's tonal congruity and imagistic exactitude. Here was a streetwise poet who loved and revered language. Gwendolyn Brooks, Sterling Brown, and Langston Hughes seem to have been his mentors, but Knight appeared to have sprung into the literary world almost fully formed. He had so much control and authority; he was authentic from the onset. Irony pulsed beneath each phrase, urbane and rural in the same breath. Maybe his duality evolved from the necessity of switching codes in his native Mississippi, having honed his ability to talk to whites and blacks simultaneously.

He was a poet who could play the dozens, who had been initiated into the various jailhouse toasts, who had accomplished the grace of a blues legend. Here was Robert Johnson back from the dead, a survivor speaking with the biting lyricism automatically associated with spirituals and defined by the art of signifying. He had the tongue of a two-headed man—a Texas-jack that could cut two ways at once. Where had this black genius been hiding?


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