Etheridge Knight was born in Corinth, Mississippi. He dropped out of high school while still a teenager and joined the army to serve in the Korea war. Wounded by shrapnel during the conflict, he returned to civilian life with an injury that led to drug addiction.
Knight was convicted of robbery in 1960 and served eight years in the Indiana State Prison. According to Terrance Hayes, Knight’s “biography is a story of restless Americanness, African Americanness, and poetry. It has some Faulknerian family saga in it, some midcentury migration story, lots of masculine tragedy, lots of soul-of-the-artist lore.” While in prison, Knight began to write poetry, and he corresponded with, and received visits from, Black literary luminaries such as Dudley Randall and Gwendolyn Brooks. His first collection, Poems from Prison (1968) included the following text on its back cover: “I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound, and narcotics resurrected me. I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life.” Knight’s work was immediately lauded as “another excellent example of the powerful truth of blackness in art,” wrote Shirley Lumpkin in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. “His work became important in Afro-American poetry and poetics and in the strain of Anglo-American poetry descended from Walt Whitman.”