24 “Eastern Guard Tower” by Etheridge Knight (Haiku)
Etheridge Knight was born on April 19, 1931, in Corinth, Mississippi. His father was a farmer and, later, a construction worker on the Kentucky Dam. Knight’s childhood was unsettled. He was an excellent student, but opportunities for poor black children in the South were few. He dropped out of school when he was sixteen. He joined the army and served as a medical technician in the Korean War until November 1950. He was wounded and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, conditions which led to an addiction to painkillers, morphine especially.
He settled in Indianapolis, where his family was now living. Opportunities were still few, and Knight sold drugs to support his own addiction. In 1960, he was sentenced to eight years in prison for armed robbery. In prison, Knight read widely and began to write poetry. By the mid 1960s, he was gaining a reputation—especially among other African-American poets—as a gifted writer. Poems from Prison was published in 1968, the same year Knight was released.
Upon his release, Knight married fellow poet Sonia Sanchez. They were, with Dudley Randall, Amiri Baraka, and Gwendolyn Brooks, prominent in the Black Arts Movement. BAM was a more radical successor to the Harlem Renaissance (see entry for Langston Hughes). By the 1960s, African-American writers and artists were impatient with the slow march toward civil rights, and their work took a more aggressive, radical, assertive position on the need for social change, for the end to racism, especially.
Knight struggled to control his drug addiction; his marriage to Sanchez did not survive. But his career flourished. He found work as poet-i- residence at several universities, including the University of Pittsburgh. He was the recipient of prestigious grants, including a Guggenheim. He continued to publish poetry collections: Belly Song and Other Poems, in 1973; Born of a Woman, in 1980. His work was widely acclaimed, and he was nominated for prestigious awards, including a Pulitzer Prize.
Knight got some control over his drug addiction; earned a degree in American poetry; and married again, though he and his second wife separated in 1977. He died of lung cancer in March of 1991.
Eastern Guard Tower
Eastern guard tower
glints in sunset; convicts rest
like lizards on rocks.
As is usually the case for a haiku, theme emerges from the contrast embedded in the poem’s imagery. The guard tower “glints in sunset,” the tower suggesting the beauty and freedom that lies beyond it. The convicts, resting “like lizards on rocks,” suggests the pain and resentment of incarceration, of the loss of freedom.
“Eastern Guard Tower” is a haiku. The haiku is a form of free verse that originated in Japan and, though it is a free verse form, does have its conventions. It is three lines in length. In its strict, classical form, the three lines add up to seventeen syllables: five in the first line, seven in the second, and five again in the third. Knight’s haiku follows this pattern.
A haiku typically consists of two contrasting images, its theme emerging from this contrast.
The image of the guard tower, glinting in the sunset, contrasts with the simile, comparing the convicts to lizards, resting on rocks. From the contrast emerges the theme of the poem.
Knight was imprisoned, from 1960 to 1968, for armed robbery. In prison, he wrote poems about the pain and anguish of the life of a convict. He wrote a series of haikus, which reveal the intensity of his ability to observe life around him and express his vision in the sharp, concise images that haikus require. “Eastern Guard Tower” is the first in the series. It was published in 1968, in Poems from Prison.
Related Activities and Questions for Study and Discussion
- Read other haikus by Etheridge Knight.
- Watch and hear Knight speak and read his poetry.
- Write a haiku on a topic of your choice or on one assigned or recommended by your teacher.