“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.” —Etheridge Knight
As his family journeyed north from their farm in Corinth, Mississippi during the great black migration, poet Ethridge Knight would encounter some of his greatest influences: Memphis blues, Paducca gospel, Indianapolis jazz. In Indianapolis, where Knight's family came to settle, he'd begin converting those foundational experiences into language participating in the proto-rap tradition of telling toasts. In considering the value of Knight's work we're likely to land on the seamless, matchless way the writer crafted black vernacular to poetic form---and to imagine him sharpening that ability behind a desk. Indeed, Knight spent 8 years socked away in Indiana State prison for purse snatching, an apt amount of time to apply tremendous academic rigor to his work. But he also spent his teenage years learning, as some of his literary descendants might've termed it decades later, "the strength of street knowledge," immersing himself in a Homeric folk discipline.
When PPW rolled into Knight's sprawling hometown recently to talk with some of the late writer's relatives and friends about his emergence as a poet, one of Knight's sisters, Janice Knight, recalled their brother's adolescent obsession with toast telling. According to historians, telling toasts is a black custom and memory feat wherein bards perform lengthy poems "in a theatrical manner." With the kind of dedication that would see rappers like Mos Def hunt down far-flung ciphers, Knight haunted pool halls and street corners where he could listen to other poets flow and develop his own style and riffs. James Depp, who lived just a few blocks from Knight in a working class, hard scrabble neighborhood, remembered Knight taking every opportunity to show off his skills, turning lethargic, sweltering Indiana evenings into raucous poetry recitals. And like any ambitious acolyte, Knight had a mentor, a larger than life poet named Hound Mouth who had a stellar command of the epic.
I never knew any other name but “Hound Mouth.” He never wrote anything, but he would sit in the park and tell toasts. They were really narrative poems, although we called them toasts. For example, he would tell us about the flood of 1937. The fire burning down a dance hall in Tupelo, Mississippi—he would tell us about that. The sinking of the Titanic, the signifying monkey, the pool;-shooting monkey—he’d tell them all for hours. He had them all in his head. If somebody said something about publishing some of it, he would not know how to write to a magazine.