Etheridge Knight began writing poetry while an inmate at the Indiana State Prison and published his first collection, Poems from Prison in 1968. When Knight entered prison, he was already an accomplished reciter of “toasts”—long, memorized, narrative poems, often in rhymed couplets.
Much of Knight’s prison poetry, according to Patricia Liggins Hill in Black American Literature Forum focuses on imprisonment as a form of contemporary enslavement and looks for ways in which one can be free despite incarceration.
For Malcolm, A Year After
Compose for Red a proper verse;
Adhere to foot and strict iamb;
Control the burst of angry words
Or they might boil and break the dam.
Or they might boil and overflow
And drench me, drown me, drive me mad.
So swear no oath, so shed no tear,
And sing no song blue Baptist sad.
Evoke no image, stir no flame,
And spin no yarn across the air.
Make empty anglo tea lace words—
Make them dead white and dry bone bare.
Compose a verse for Malcolm man,
And make it rime and make it prim.
The verse will die—as all men do—
but not the memory of him!
Death might come singing sweet like C,
Or knocking like the old folk say,
The moon and stars may pass away,
But not the anger of that day.
by: Etheridge Knight
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