“The Sea in My Belly:” Transcendence and the Blues Poetry of Etheridge Knight
Amaud Jamaul Johnson
Thesis DT 3.5 1998 J644
vi, 97 leaves: ill.; 29 cm.
This study employs and interdisciplinary approach to analyze the relationship between the poetry of Etheridge Knight and his desire for emotional and psychological change by incorporating criticism of the Blues and African American literature. This examination employs biographical material concerning Knight's childhood experiences, his incarceration, and his career as a poet. In addition, historical material contextualizes the social and political activities surrounding Knight's transformations. A close reading of Knight's seminal contributions provides pertinent information regarding his use of personal experience to express communal concern.
The framework of this study utilizes the Blues ritual as a model to express the communicative elements of Knight's work. In his writing, Knight illustrates the importance of call and response as a primary function of poetry. He argues that because the speaker and the audience compliment each other through an exchange of authority, a "physical" connection is established. This relationship between the speaker and the audience represents Knight's desire to bridge his personal experience with the struggles of the African-American community.
Considering the discussion of the Blues as a viable means to interrogate the personal, social, and political ramifications of oppression within the African American community, this study of Etheridge Knight's poetry illuminates the relevance of artistic production to social movement. In the context of Ralph Ellison's explanation of the transcendent qualities of the Blues, Knight's transition from "toast-teller" to prison poet, and his relationship to the Black Arts Movement demonstrates the function of African-American culture, particularly music and literature, as vehicles to challenge the limitations of racism.
One of the more striking elements of Knight's work is the attention he gives to definitions of masculinity. Given the hostility of Knight's experience in prison and the general competitiveness of men in America, Knight explores how emotional expression can be perceived as a liability. Because much of what Knight understands as "masculine" qualities, such as callousness and violent behavior, led to his incarceration, he embraces the "feminine" in his view of maleness. He confronts the stereotypical depictions of men and women to illuminate the "human" characteristics necessary for change in his personal life. Knight looks at the degree to which concepts of masculinity can become oppressive, and through his efforts to use poetry as a means for "self-motivated rehabilitation," he discusses male vulnerability as a form of resistance. By "unmasking the masculine," exploring the pain and frustration that dominated his life, Knight's transformation takes shape.