On Etheridge Knight

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3q6Xo9-JEfc Etheridge Knight had a grasp of many poetic forms-ranging from blues to the classical lyric ballad-and he mixed them often a high, declarative voice. He used stream of consciousness, however, to cry. When praying for his street walking sister or railing against the trinity of demons that haunted him( Jim Crow, War, Heroin), Knight set aside his prototypical tone and took on one of the most heartbreaking tenors I have ever read or wished to.

Feeling Fucked Up, his take on the dissolution of his marriage to Sonia Sanchez, is Knight singing a sorrow song. Blunt, direct, murderously self recriminatory, it is a poem that spurs even the most jaded of readers to feel empathy for his demise. Fucked Up shows that even in his darkest and most emotionally revelatory, Knight was still superb at his craft. The language here-elongated, rolling, and internal-draws from the tradition of Poets who painstakingly rendered the diverse cadences and dialects of African American Speech on the page. There are none of his traditional signifiers, no place where he flips the conventions of the toast to literary ends or brings the language of the street to the academic stanza. The poem’s structure draws on a set of surface contradictions: controlled in its unrestraint, measured in its abandon, disciplined in the way it impulsively reveals human feeling. Together, it is not a great “Knight Poem”, as it is just a great poem.

What hits me in the gut, however, is the content. Fucked up isn’t some 2nd rate Burroughs confessional, nor is it a Lowellian shock piece that feels more manipulative than cathartic. It is the voice of a man who regained and achieved so much in his life, lost it because of his addiction to heroin, and is delirious with pain because of it. This poem isn’t a blow by blow of a marriage, it’s Knight describing walking out of heaven and not being able to stop. Personally, I shed few tears for people who are in that severely self-destructive a mode; and one can only go so far in having pity for him. Yet to read this and have no ache for the man whatsoever is to have a heart of stone.

Sadly, too few modern critics have gotten past to surfeit details of Fucked Up. Too much of the scholarship I have read on Knight has been focused on his addiction, his antics, and other things that have absolutely nothing to do with his poetry. A generation of writers more concerned with textual analysis than late 20th century soiree hi jinks will find his work, and what they will find will be some of the greatest poems ever written in the 20th century.Feeling Fucked Up, a raw jewel of a poem, will be one of them.


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