"A Denominator, Common or Uncommon"*
Origins and influences
When we, the student researchers, began to dig into the vast archival material at our disposal, what became quickly apparent was how frequently Etheridge Knight, Jr. shunned convention and expectation in his life and work. He often blurred the line between poet and speaker, and his work can sometimes be read directly as a representation of his life; but even when not directly about himself, his work was very much of himself.
Knight’s first poetry collection, published in 1968, was titled Poems from Prison.
Throughout his life, he would be saddled with the label of “prison poet.” Though it’s not a label he altogether rejected—even referring to himself in that way from time to time—it has unfortunately often been used as a totality, as if it explains everything you need to know about Knight and his work. This label pigeonholes Knight as a poet who either writes exclusively about or while in prison. I was interested in how Knight subverted this label, how he drew upon this deeply intertwined aspect of his personal history to fight against stereotypes and ultimately connect with others.
The great pleasure of archival research is the unparalleled intimacy the artifacts offer. I was exposed to letters, handwritten drafts of poems, doodles, flyers, bills, photographs, and many more pieces of Knight’s life. Many of these artifacts helped shed light on Knight’s work as a “prison poet”; other artifacts highlighted how Knight drew upon his past to try to make life better for people who were facing similar circumstances. For Knight, being a “prison poet” was not only about writing poetry while imprisoned, but was also about using poetry as a means for expression, as a way to fight for a life and passions beyond what he had immediately available. This was his way of finding solidarity with people with whom he otherwise would have had no connection.
I hope these artifacts will be instructive, both in better understanding Knight and his poetry and also in showing how grand the totality of a person can be. While Knight’s influence and importance are undeniable and can still be felt through the work of some of our best contemporary poets, his visibility is not as strong as it deserves to be. I hope this exhibit can help reintroduce the work of this indelible poet and initiate a whole new wave of appreciation for one of Indiana’s best poets.
*"A Denominator, Common or Uncommon" is drawn from Knight's poem "A Wasp Woman Visits a Black Junkie in Prison," published in The Essential Etheridge Knight, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986.