Knight Etheridge 19311991 A

central figure in the black arts movement, Etheridge Knight's poems at once mix the vernacular with formal rhymes and rhythmical features that, in turn, bear strong political, social, and spiritual content. The influences of Walt Whitman, Sterling brown, and Gwendolyn brooks exist in his work. Few poets since Edwin Arlington robinson and Edgar Lee masters have so adeptly handled moralist poetic portraiture. As with Robinson, he was a poet of the people, a people's poet. And as both a prodigious formalist and a powerful performer, his work has directly affected subsequent generations—particularly members of the new formalism and spoken word artists (see poetry in performance).

Knight was born in Corinth, Mississippi, one of seven children. After growing up in Paducah, Kentucky, he entered the United States Army in 1947, served in Korea, where he saw active duty, and was discharged in 1957, at which time he began to travel the United States. Having developed a heroin addiction in the army and being led occasionally to support this addiction by crime, Knight was convicted of robbery and placed in the Indiana State Prison in Indianapolis in 1960. Brooks, having seen Knight's work in journals, visited the prison and encouraged Knight's poetry writing. His first book, Poems from Prison, bore a foreword by Brooks and was published in 1968 by Dudley Randall's Broadside Press. Knight served as poet-in-residence at several universities and, in addition to being nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, received, among many other honors, the American Book Award for his 1987 collection The Essential Etheridge Knight.

Just as adept writing a ballad as he was writing haiku, Knight's poems hold unusually vibrant combinations of ideas, stories, fables, honesty, anger, praise, destitution, and hope. Influenced by the African-American genre of the "toast," his poems often sketch humorous caricatures of people he had known. A preternaturally strong performer, Knight often left audiences thunderstruck. Robert bly once wrote, "I believe that Wallace stevens and Etheridge Knight stand as two poles of North American poetry" (108). But because Knight's poems are so intricate and varied, Bly went on to warn of the mistake of making Stevens out to be the complicated, elegant, indirect, and highly artificed pole and Knight the straightforward, natural, and piercing pole. Knight is simply less of an idealist, more of realist, but equally as crafted and inventive as Stevens.

Knight's elegy for Malcolm X, "For Malcolm, a Year After," is a complex attack upon Euro-American politics and aesthetics. In addition to paying tribute to

Malcolm X, the poem stands as both an example and an indictment of the white, prim formalist poem, at once embracing and rebuffing the oppressive political and aesthetic artifice in which and against which Knight himself struggled: "And make it rime and make it prim." Poetry may die, as do people, "But not the memory of him."


Bly, Robert. "Hearing Etheridge Knight." In American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity. New York: Harper & Row, 1990, pp. 101-108.

Gabriel Gudding

KOCH, KENNETH (1925-2002) Along with Frank o'hara, John ashbery, James schuyler, and Barbara guest, Kenneth Koch was a central figure of the new YORK school of poets. The New York poets engaged artistically with so-called action painters (especially the pioneers of abstract expressionism Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Larry Rivers), the European avant-garde in general, and French surrealism in particular. They wrote subjectively and autobio-graphically but rejected confessional poetrys extremes. Their philosophy of poetry is as much one of rejection of things others did as it is an embrace of their own traits. They wanted a poetry that was not arrogant, not prophetic, not boring. While all of the New York school are, in the words of Geoff Ward, "expertly addicted to witticisms and poetic comedy" (3), Koch is "the most frantically and farcically humorous of all these poets" (7). His poetry is "characterized by spontaneity, erotic high jinx and pathos . . . balanc[ing] outrageous improvisation, allusive intelligence and a sweetly impersonal lyric" ("Columbian").

Koch was born in Cincinatti, ohio, and served in the United States Army in the Philippines during World War II. Koch, Ashbery, and O'Hara all studied together at Harvard in the late 1940s before migrating to New York; after earning a bachelor's degree in 1948, Koch completed a master's degree (1953) and a Ph.D. (1959) at Columbia, where he joined the faculty in 1959. Koch's long list of recognitions includes the Inez Boul-ton Prize (1959), the Frank O'Hara Prize (1973), the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award of Merit

(1987), the Fund for Poetrys "Contribution to Poetry Award" (1992), the Ingram-Merrill Foundations Distinguished Work Award (1992), the Bollingen Prize for poetry (1995), induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1996), and the French government's Chevalier de l'Ordres des Arts et des Lettres (2000).

In Koch's work, Ward writes, "the colour and the facetiousness . . . are characteristic of his activities" (8). For example, in "variations on a Theme by William Carlos williams" (1962), Koch playfully parodies Williams's disarming confession and justification for eating some plums (found in Williams's poem "This Is Just To Say" [1934]) by variously admitting that he demolished a woman's house, fractured her leg, squandered her money, and "sprayed [the hollyhocks] with lye. / Forgive me." He does the same thing in parodying Robert frost's "Mending Wall" (1914) in his own poem "Mending Sump" (1960). His parodies may be ridiculous, but they never ridicule; instead they tease in an affectionate way. Likewise Koch writes about human experience and broken relationships, but the poems are never despondent. Instead he ends "Talking to Patrizia" (1994), his poem about a woman who repeatedly abandons the poem's speaker, with the hopeful cry that if the woman returns, "Late isn't anything!" In 1968 critic Stephen Koch found Kenneth Koch's poems "a kind of word-playground, the component parts . . . always pleasant and tasty; filled with . . . circuses, red shimmering fish, . . . chugging rusty ships"; he considered the poet himself to be "sometimes insufferably silly . . . [but nevertheless] perhaps the most polished wit writing in English."

In "The Art of Poetry" (1975), Kenneth Koch explained that he wanted readers to be somewhat perplexed at the end of a poem, both "Distressed and illuminated, ready to believe / It is curious to be alive." He accomplishes this in "one Train May Hide Another" (1994) by revealing that what we see always conceals something else. The poem is a list of examples of things that block other things: siblings obscuring lovers, noise masking music, and so on: "always standing in front of something the other / As words stand in front of objects, feelings, and ideas." The truly distressing revelation is that the reader cannot get behind all the unconcealed people and things in order to find all the concealed ones. There is always another concealment behind the enlightenment.

Starting with his first book, Poems (1953), Koch published 20 books of poetry. He also published six collections of plays, beginning with Bertha and Other Plays (1966), described by Stephen Koch as "delicious little dadaistic farces." Koch's other enterprises include eight prose works, among them a novel (The Red Robins, [1975]), a collection of short stories (Hotel Lambosa and Other Stories [1993]), and manuals for teaching poetry and poetry writing both to children (Wishes, Lies and Dreams [1970] and Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? [1973]) and to the elderly and infirm (I Never Told Anybody [1977]), an opera libretto for Marcello Panni's The Banquet (produced in Bremen, 1998), and art gallery exhibitions, in Ipswich and New York, of collaborations with painters. Koch's late poems are perhaps more reflective and contemplative than his early work, but they nevertheless are examples, as Ken Tucker has observed, of "that mixture of earnestness, ebullience and dreamy romanticism that long ago rendered Koch the ageless grad student of the New York School of Poets."


"Columbian Wins Bollingen Prize," Columbia University Available on-line. URL: record2017.13.html. Downloaded February 2002. Diggory, Terence, and Stephen Paul Miller, eds. The Scene of My Selves: New Work on New York School Poets. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 2000. Koch, Stephen. "The New York School of Poets: The Serious at Play," New York Times (February 11, 1968). Available on-line. URL: Downloaded February 2002. Lehman, David. The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New

York School of Poets. New York: Doubleday, 2002. Tucker, Ken. "You Talking to Me?" New York Times (June 4, 2000). Available on-line. URL: Downloaded February 2002. Ward, Geoff. Statutes of Liberty: The New York School of Poets. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

A. Mary Murphy

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