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FOR THE DANCE BEGINS IN THE BELLY
Who’s filled to the brim on the gantry
For the dance begins in the belly
I made/up/ “The Idea of Ancestry” in the early sixties when I was in prison, in the belly of a beast. The initial creative/impulse for the poem occurred, and many of the lines were made up, during one of my stints in Solitary Confinement. Being in prison is in itself a trip; and being in “The Hole”, the prison within the prison, is like having one foot in an emotional grave and the other/foot on a banana peeling. After being in solitary for awhile, not knowing night from day, I began to lose track of the days and weeks; I became disoriented, out of touch with my/self. So I started to Re/Member: my grade school classmates and guys I’d been in the army with, and my family, most of all.
(I think Memory and Imagination are the Parents of Creativity. And, in my situation, with such a bleak future facing me, Imagination, if not dead altogether, was definitely crippled.) Memory was all I had to draw on. So I started making/up/the lines and phrases out-loud, memorizing them. And I started to Creative again. I later finished the poem back in my cell.
It seems to me that “The Idea of Ancestry” belongs to a body of poems that I have/come/to call Genealogical. I didn’t have the term in mind when I made/up/the poem; if I had anything at all in mind, it was a desperate attempt, an urge, to grasp a sense of my/self, of who I/was/–right then. By Genealogical poems I mean poems whose Authority is based upon personal–and sometimes collective–history as it is revealed by the poet by the Reader or Listener. Sometimes this revelation might happen in a single poem but it usually seems to take a group of them. And I don't think the Listener or reader will very much trust the poet until this genesis is revealed; in other words, the poet is obliged to let her or his audience know where he or she is coming from. I know that I personally don’t trust the social and political comments inherent in most poems until I do/know/the poet’s genealogy.
There seems to/be/ two (probably more) characteristics that are highlighted in these genealogical poems. The first is Intonation. At some point in the poem, or poems, the recitation, the Re/Calling of the Dead–and that accompanying Authority that takes place. And I think something else occurs: a Leap is made, a Dance begins, the Art happens, a Communication exists between the poet, the poem, and the people. It’s probably got something to do with the mechanics and poetics involved in the sounds and rhythms of intoning, in the/way/ the Words, themselves, are used.
I call the second characteristic Tradition–that aspect of the poem that ties it to a specific time and place, thus further establishing a historical Authority. For instance, in Yeats’ poem, “Blood and the Moon,” he sings:
Blessed be this place and more blessed still this
I declare this tower is my symbol; I declare
This winding, gyring, spiring treadmills of a stair
is my ancestral stair;
That Goldsmith and the Dean, Berkeley and Burke
have travelled there.
That’s sorta what I mean.
Again, all of this I’ve said above–I had/none/ of it in mind when I made/up/the poem. It was made/up/ in my belly and my breath. In prison air.
– Etheridge Knight
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