Knight on the Art of Oral Poetry, 1987

In this transcript, taken from a speech Knight gave at Colorado State University, he talks about how oral traditions like toasts inspired his work, and how storytelling was critical to his process. He also talks about the intersection of these forms with his time in prison. In this speech, Knight says: “Following any discipline, you’ve got to understand the traditions. It’s hard to be innovative if you don’t know what you’re innovating away from.” It is easy to miscategorize Knight as being so unorthodox in his poetry that there is not evidence of his poetry having technically strong aspects. Because he is such a dynamic speaker, and because he would often change his poems as he read to audiences to match their energy, it can be easy to overlook the strong connection Knight has and owes to poets and poetic traditions that came before him. Knight’s poetry was emotional and extremely personal, but by modifying the poetic tradition he drew from to fit his own vision, Knight began to create his own poetic form, one which continues to inspire poets today and which was the driving factor of much of his popularity. This continual “reinvention” also helped him cement himself beyond the confines of the “prison poet” label; it allowed him to draw upon his own experiences without becoming defined by them.

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