Helen Vendler: On "Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane"

In a grand poem already anthologized by Dudley Randall in his excellent collection, The Black Poets (1971), Knight tells of his family ("The Idea of Ancestry"): "Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black / faces. . . . / They stare / across the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I know--mine." Another poem immortalizes a moment of prison despair; "Hard Rock Returns to Prison From the Hospital for the Criminal Insane":


Hard Rock was "known not to take no shit

From nobody," and he had the scars to prove it:

Split purple lips, lumped ears, welts above

His yellow eyes, and one long scar that cut

Across his temple and plowed through a thick

Canopy of kinky hair.


Hard Rock goes under, lobotomized, as the poem knows he will, but the lumps and the welts stay in the poem unrepaired and unrepentant. Knight's other side voices a longing no less deep than the yearning of the spirituals it remembers in its wish for Mississippi.


One day we shall all go back--

we shall surely all go back (down home. . .

and the shame will leave our children's eyes (down home ...


Criticism Overview
Title Helen Vendler: On "Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Helen Vendler Criticism Target Etheridge Knight
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 09 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets
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