Etheridge Knight (April 19, 1931 – March 10, 1991) was an African-Americanpoet who made his name in 1968 with his debut volume, Poems from Prison. The book recalls in verse his eight-year-long sentence after his arrest for robbery in 1960. By the time he left prison, Knight had prepared a second volume featuring his own writings and works of his fellow inmates. This second book, first published in Italy under the title Voce negre dal carcere, appeared in English in 1970 as Black Voices from Prison. These works established Knight as one of the major poets of the Black Arts Movement, which flourished from the early 1960s through the mid-1970s. With roots in the Civil Rights Movement, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, and the Black Power Movement, Etheridge Knight and other American artists within the movement sought to create politically engaged work that explored the African-American cultural and historical experience.
Knight is also considered an important poet in the mainstream American tradition. In his 2012 book Understanding Etheridge Knight, Michael S. Collins calls Knight “a mighty American poet….He and Wallace Stevens stand as ‘two poles of American poetry,’ according to his better-known fellow writer Robert Bly. Or, rather, Knight was, as he often said, a poet of the belly: a poet of the earth and of the body, a poet of the feelings from which cries and blood oaths and arias come, while Stevens was a poet, arguably, of the ache left in the intellect after it tears itself from God. ‘Ideas are not the source of poetry,’ Knight told one interviewer. ‘For me it’s passion, heart and soul….'”
Knight was born on April 19, 1931 as one of eight children to Belzora Cozart  Knight and Etheridge “Bushie” Knight in rural Corinth, Mississippi, but moved with his family to Paducah, Kentucky, where his father, a failed farmer, worked as a laborer on the Kentucky Dam. During this time, Knight frequently ran away from home, and so, was sent back to Corinth during the summer to stay with an uncle. Although he was an extremely bright student, Knight decided to drop out of school at the age of 16. His first job was as a shoe shiner in a small Kentucky town, where he first became more attuned to nuances of language as he absorbed the world and activity around him. In addition to his work, Knight spent much of his time at juke joints, pool halls, and underground poker games, which furthered his interest in language. It was during this time that Knight became exposed to “toasts,” which are narrative-style oral poetry which relates a story. In 1947, Knight enlisted in the army and served as a medical technician in the Korean War until November 1950, during which time he sustained serious wound as well as psychological trauma, which led him to begin using morphine. By the time Knight was discharged from the army and returned to Indianapolis, Indiana, where his family had moved, he had become addicted to opiates. He spent much of the next several years dealing drugs and stealing to support his drug addiction.
In 1960, after a few previous run-ins with the police, Knight and two of his associates were arrested for armed robbery. Knight was initially so furious about his sentence that he was later unable to recall much of what happened during his first few months of his sentence. But after realizing that such anger was counterproductive, he turned his attention to reading as much as he could and dedicated himself to poetry.
During the following years, Knight became increasingly well known for his poetry writings. After working as a journalist for prison publications, he began submitting poetry to the Negro Digest in 1965. He also started establishing contacts with significant figures in the African-American literary community, including well-known poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, Dudley Randall, Sonia Sanchez and Haki Madhubuti, many of whom came to visit him in prison. The poems he had written during his time in prison were so effective that Dudley Randall, a poet and owner of Broadside Press, published Knight’s first volume of verse, Poems from Prison, and hailed Knight as one of the major poets of the Black Arts Movement. The book’s publication coincided with his release from prison.
Upon his release from prison in 1968, Knight married poet Sonia Sanchez. Over the next few years, he held the position of writer-in-residence at several universities, including two years, 1968 and 1969, spent at the University of Pittsburgh. While living in Pittsburgh with his wife and their family, Knight spent time as poetry editor for Motive magazine. Because of his ongoing drug addiction, his marriage to Sanchez did not last long, and they were divorced in 1970 while still in Pittsburgh. He continued writing his third book, Belly Song and Other Poems, which was published in 1973. His third work incorporates new life experiences and attitudes about love and race, and Knight was praised for the work’s sincerity. Belly Song was nominated for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Knight’s time in Pennsylvania was very important to his career: his work during this period won him both a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1972 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974.
He married Mary McAnally in 1972, and she adopted 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 continued to write throughout his post-prison life. Belly Song and Other Poems (1973) dealt with themes of racism and love. Knight believed the poet was a “meddler” or intermediary between the poem and the reader. He elaborated on this concept in his 1980 work Born of a Woman. The Essential Etheridge Knight (1986), which is a compilation of his work.
In 1990, he earned a bachelor’s degree in American poetry and criminal justice from Martin Center University in Indianapolis. Knight taught at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Hartford, and Lincoln University, before he was forced to stop working due to illness. He also continued to be known as a charismatic poetry reader. Knight died in Indianapolis, Indiana, of lung cancer on March 10, 1991.