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Approches critiques de la fiction afro-américaine

Michel Fabre
Claude Julien
Trevor Harris

"In the Inner Ear": Genealogy and Intertextuality in the Poetry of Etheridge Knight and Michael Harper

Ugo Rubeo

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1I would like to start this discussion on Etheridge Knight's and Michael Harper's use of intertextuality by giving a brief explanation of the first part of the title of this article, which might remain somehow obscure to some readers. "In the Inner Ear" is a direct reference to one of Harper's most recent collection of poems, published in 1984 — whose title reads Healing Song for the Inner Ear" — an expression which was also used by Etheridge Knight, in one of his rare printed articles, entitled "On the Oral Nature of Poetry" (1988). In its entirety, Knight's comment reads: "If it is true that as I'm talking to you bones are moving in your inner ears, I'm physically touching you with my voice" (Knight, 1988, 92). I do not want to start from what is probably no more than a linguistic coincidence to build up a thesis on the dialogic connections between the works of these two major African-American contemporary poets. What I want to note is merely that both Knight and Harper — who incidentally use that expression in substantially different contexts and terms: Knight's sentence is meant to be taken literally, while Harper's is obviously used as a metaphor — turn to that same image to stress, as artists, their need to establish meaningful ways of communication with their audience. In the condensed language of poets, however, that reference to a small, hidden organ of the auditory system seems to contain a series of further allusions and implicit comments upon specific and relevant aspects of both artists' poetics, that it may be worth exploring.

2The first, and most obvious of these aspects has to do with oral communication: a modality which is not only central to both poets' aesthetic program, but that also defines their own — to a great extent coincident — line of descent within the folk tradition, their relation with jazz and the blues, their overall preoccupation with establishing genealogical connections with their African-American cultural heritage. The second aspect relates to the need to find one's proper place in that realm: as we all know, the "inner ear", besides being the sensory part that allows one to perceive sounds, is also "the essential organ of… equilibrium" — and both poets repeatedly show their awareness of the need to find a balance not only within their texts, but also in what they deem an essential feature of their work — that is, the performance of that text before an audience. Finally, the third aspect I see connected with that image of the inner ear deals with yet another of its morphological features — more precisely with its being hidden from sight and with its being a maze of "intricate passageways and blind alleys", or what Webster's defines as a labyrinth. Again, I see these two qualities as intimately related to Knight's and Harper's conceptions of poetic communication, both as suggesting the necessity of its being able to strike deep down inside, establishing a subtle, profound and subliminal connection with their public, and especially as a reference to the labyrinthine maze of relations, allusions and reverberations that their work of art inevitably establishes with other texts — a figure somehow related to the intertextual spider's web they are both caught in, and, in turn, engaged in weaving. What I propose to do is to deal briefly with these three intimately linked features of their work, and, by referring to some of their poems, help shed some light on the relevance of intertextuality to the functioning of their poetic language.


3On a number of occasions, particularly throughout the eighties, Etheridge Knight proceeded to indicate what his adhesion to the oral patterns of communication was grounded upon. The following — perhaps his most synthetic statement to this effect — is indeed characteristic of his position: "I'm convinced that as long as a poem is spoken aloud it's 'timeless'" (Knight, 1988, 94). In a blatant — though I couldn't say just how conscious — inversion of the old Latin adage "Verba volant, scripta manent" ("Words pass away, writing remains"), Knight identifies in the modes of oral transmission the means to ensure the vitality of the word through time — the real and only key to its survival. Far from representing a secondary facet of his aesthetic credo, this assumption gradually becomes the organizing theoretical principle of his work, as well as a coherent, unifying theme for much of his poetry that, consequently, increasingly tends to acquire a markedly self-reflexive quality. But apart from the metaphorical implications this choice gives way to in Knight's text — later on I will touch upon some of them — his convinced defense of orality as opposed to writing, implicitly amounts to a clear identification within that rich stream of the African-American tradition that is commonly referred to as "folk poetry" — a tradition that two unorthodox personalities such as Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown largely helped make visible.

  • 1 The allusion to Jorge Louis Borges's tale "Pierre Menard, the Author of Quixote", is meant to emph (...)

4It is perhaps useful to note that this genealogical claim Knight stakes strictly within the proper domain of an aesthetic quest, takes on a distinctly ideological coloring for, whether we believe or not in Borges's contention that "each writer creates his precursors,1 the fact remains that those two "ancestors" had, since the twenties, made it a point to use their linguistic craft in a highly independent, consciously rebellious fashion. Much of the subversiveness both Hughes's and Brown's works were founded upon, lay in the conversion into written poetry of linguistic schemes and rhetorical patterns, diction, and often even characters directly drawn from the African-American, largely oral, folk tradition. Significantly, Knight not only experiments with that same technique, but, taking the lead from his predecessors, he carries that process one step farther, completing the circle with an oral performance that hands the text back to the audience, and thus opens it up to active participation and further cross-fertilization. In this sense, then, genealogy works for Etheridge Knight as a prerequisite to the conscious use of intertexuality — a perspective that starts surfacing in his first collection, Poems from Prison, published in 1968, and that increasingly plays a major role in his poetry. Significantly, the ending of that book signals the emergence of this note, as the final group of poems that are contained in it are all directly dedicated to prominent personalities of the African-American political, cultural, and artistic worlds, in what appears to be a "gallery" of portraits — or if you wish a genealogical tree — made of those figures who in various ways had contributed to his own human uplift from the inside of Indiana State Prison and to his own artistic emergence. Among the recipients of this dialogic homage are Malcolm X, Gwendolyn Brooks, Dinah Washington, and Langston Hughes himself, to whom the following verses, echoing Hughes's subdued poetic style, are dedicated:

Gone Gone
Another weaver of black dreams has gone we sat in June Bug's pad with the shades drawn and we heard the air thick with holy smoke. And we heard the Lady sing Langston before we knew his name.
Gone Gone
Another weaver of black dreams has gone. (Knight, 1968, 29)

5Michael Harper's insistent attempt at investigating the meaning and exploring the continuity of the African-American historical and cultural experience is, likewise, a well-known, overriding concern of his aesthetic program — an aspect that has helped shape his poetry into a coherent, if not always easily accessible text, whose substantial unity seems to be well condensed in the recurrent image of the tree we often find in his poems. As many of the titles of his books suggest — from History Is Your Own Heartbeat (1971), to Photographs: Negatives: History as Apple Tree (1972), and to Images of Kin (1977) — one of his main preoccupations as a poet consists in establishing a meaningful connection between the past and the present or, rather, in unifying those two poles of experience into a linguistic fluid texture in which they constantly interact with one another in what we could call a process of regeneration of their meaning. Indeed, perhaps the best description of this creative method can be found in one of his poems, entitled "Corrected View":

Our mode is our jam session
of tradition,
past in this present moment
articulated, blown through
with endurance,
an unreaching extended
improvised love of past masters,
instruments technically down:
structured rendering of reality
our final war with self;
rhetoric/parlance arena-word-consciousness:
morality: man to man
man to god
in a tree
more ancient than eden. (Harper, 1977, 64-65)

6Clearly based on a multiple stratification of language — which Harper typically builds up borrowing images, expressions, and stylistic techniques from jazz — this "jam session of tradition" combines in itself both the centrifugal and the centripetal strategies that students of intertextuality often see as intimately connected to the use of quotations: while on the one hand it invites the audience to move away from the text in an attempt to work back to its origins, on the other it draws their attention to the inner functioning of the text. What is particularly interesting to note in this case — and this can be extended to several other examples in his poems — is that quotations, which technically speaking are absent from his text, are only visible — I should say audible — once the text is orally performed. Only at that time, as part of an audience, do we become aware of the full implications of his style, of the impact of his musical references, and, also, of the multiple self-reflexive layers of a text which, if taken simply as a piece of writing would remain, at least in part, willfully mute.

7As throughout the mid-seventies and the eighties both Etheridge Knight and Michael Harper reach artistic maturity — in Knight's case, unfortunately, that stage anticipates by just a few years his untimely death — their inclination towards a form of poetry which relies heavily on oral patterns of communication, as well as on oral performance, becomes more and more a central feature of their poetic research. Similarly, as Knight's dependence on the blues and Harper's reliance both on blues and jazz as the organizing models for their poetry increase and deepen, it becomes apparent that their use of intertextual strategies — the building up of their own genealogical trees within those traditions — is a necessary consequence of their common intention not to enhance the "authority" of the text proper, but rather to cut it down, by shifting the emphasis — through the act of performance—back to context. If it is true, as Shirley Anne Williams convincingly put it, that: "Afro-American music still functions to some extent as a reflector of a wide range of values in the national black community and often serves as a catalyst for discussions, reviews and revisions of these values" (Williams, in Harper and Stepto, 1979, 124), we can draw the conclusion that the somehow programmatic "incompleteness" of Knight's — and to a lesser extent — of Harper's texts is a prerequisite for recuperating for their poetry that sense of "collective purpose" and that "impulse to action" which were originally inherent both in the blues and in jazz.


  • 2 Both E. Knight and M. Harper have made this point repeatedly in a number of articles and interview (...)

8This first conclusion brings me to the second point of my analysis, which I earlier indicated as the question of balance. What I have said so far makes it impossible for me to discuss the "internal balance" of a text that is meant to reach its final stage of completion only once the interaction with the audience takes place. Let me add, incidentally, that as I by now take it for granted that both authors do consider the oral performance as an integral part of their poems, I will not get into problems of authorship, nor into questions concerning the definition of an "authorative" or "definitive" edition of texts which are obviously susceptible to change and fresh interpretations each time they are performed. What I would like to focus on, instead, is how in their poetry Knight and Harper account for that type of crucial exchange with the audience, and what repercussions, both of a technical and thematic nature, that choice brings about. First of all, I would like to dispel possible doubts as to the fact that, dispensing with the idea of a strictly "packaged" text may imply some kind of superficiality or even sloppiness on the authors' part. On the contrary, it seems to me that their decision to expose the text to external influences calls for an even greater awareness both of the dangers the text itself may incur (such as occasional misunderstandings, obscure implications, etc.), as well as of the risks the poet/performer runs in his dialogical dynamics with his audience (i.e., lack of expected support, untimely reactions, etc.). There is little doubt as to the fact that both Knight and Harper do take into account that side of the problem, and that they both carefully build up their poems, even though — or perhaps especially because — apart from being read, they are also meant to become part of a live exchange with a group.2

9With his habitual, disarming clarity, Etheridge Knight sums up his views on this very issue, giving an explanation of what he believes the concept of balance essentially boils down to:

Th Poet, The Poem and The People: When the three come together, the communion, the communication, the Art happens. (Knight, 1980, 7)

10Condensing in this formula-like statement the basics of his aesthetic view, Knight proceeds to develop his idea, building on the concept of circularity. As a living agent of intertextuality the poet — via the oral performance of his text — has to ensure a circular type of exchange among the three essential elements of the poetic process (the poet, the poem and the people) which, fittingly enough, are all lined up along a horizontal course — that is to say they are organized on a nonhierarchical basis. This circular type of communication — that I guess we could call "spatial", in that it aims at providing a balanced conjunction among physically separate entities — is yet doubled by another kind of circular dialogue which, as we have already partially seen, the poet establishes with the past through the use of intertextual strategies. Once more, we see how Knight intends that function as intimately linked to reality, how that same concept of "timelessness" I referred to earlier becomes, in his own words, very concrete and factual, the opposite of what one could perhaps take as a merely private, abstract wish for immortality:

As I said, too great an emphasis on the written word leads to a distance between poet and audience. Then the poet begins to speak in a language that's not relevant to the audience. If you stay too long on the mountain-top, you will be speaking in dead metaphors, and the people down here will have gone on to something else. You know, by the time language gets into the dictionary, we done moved on to something else. (Knight, 1988, 94-95)

11In Knight's view, bridging time past and time present is no mere intellectual excercice — it is rather a way of keeping in touch with reality, of ensuring that language retains that circular communication it needs to keep being meaningful and alive. Consequently, his poetry cannot but reflect and register this preoccupation with circularity, which indeed becomes the common conceptual basis for a whole cluster of images, a recurrent metaphor for orality, as well as the organizing pattern for much of his later work. As I do not have space to get into specific examples, I just want to call attention to the three-part structure of his 1980, comprehensive edition of his poems, entitled Born of a Woman, whose headings, "Inside-Out/Outside-In/All About and Back Again" do actually suggest the circular, perfectly balanced course the voice of the poet makes during the oral performance.

12Though if compared to Knight's more compact view, Michael Harper's conception of balance may somehow appear less strictly consequential, it would be a mistake to draw the conclusion that for him the problem is any less important. An immediate explanation for this difference lies in the fact that, while Knight's central stylistic referent is that of the blues, Harper's poetry, heavily dependent on jazz techniques, obviously emphasizes the role of such a central feature as improvisation. This, in turn, means that what Harper himself calls "the individuality of the performer" has to be properly brought out, as he maintains it is the only substantial ground for "any comparison at all between a musician and a poet" (Martin, 1990, 442). It seems to me that it is precisely at this stage that Harper's use of intertextuality steps in to reconcile, within a balanced compound, a potential conflict between his desire to affirm his individuality and his need to communicate with an audience. "Free but disciplined associations" — the formula is taken from Stephen Henderson's influential book, Understanding the New Black Poetry (1973) — is what Harper seems to elect as the inspiring principle of his own writing: a method that allows the explosive creativity of his virtuoso voice to come out unchecked, while at the same time recognizing the objective need of a common ground on which an exchange can take place.

  • 3 Stephen Henderson, points out that Harper "quotes from the companion poem that Coltrane wrote for (...)

13This common ground is, at times, part of the inner structure of the text itself, a line repeated several times throughout the poem that, like a jazz riff, serves both as a support for improvisation and as a repetition that the audience increasingly perceives as familiar, identifies with, and eventually proceeds to use as its own basis for further fertilization. An example of this is to be found in "Dear John, Dear Coltrane",3 the title-poem of Harper's first collection, published in 1970, and a piece he often effectively performs before audiences. Other times, that agreement is sought for through allusions and references to historical and cultural tropes, or through a strictly literary intertextual strategy. A typical example of this last technique can be found in a poem, entitled "Chief", which, besides being entirely built on a series of dialogic connections with other texts and authors — among them, Scott Momaday and Etheridge Knight himself — is also encased in a section that duplicates the title of Ralph Ellison's book Going to the Territory, thus engaging the reader in a chain of successive speculations.


14The third and final part of my talk is more directly centered on our authors' intentional use of intertextuality as a self-reflexive signifier. Some of the remarks I made before, particularly those on the use of circularity as a metaphor for oral communication in Knight's poetry, could be further developed in this conjunction. For clarity's sake, however, I will only concentrate on one of his poems, entitled "Genesis 11", which I believe Knight somehow intended to be his own "Ars Poetica". Though very short, the poem is packed with all sorts of allusions, some of which I will comment upon:

The WORD, Was, Is, Will, BE;
The Beginning and the End, BE;
And the Word/is/ Round
And Warm and Rolling;
And the Word/be/a Verb,
And the Verb/be/a Woman… (Knight, 1986, 1-2)

15What we are confronted with here is an elusive linguistic labyrinth: each way we turn we seem to end up bumping into the same words, same sounds, same hammering structures — notably anaphora and parataxis — which in a mirror-like, endless chain — reinforced by the final ellipsis which ideally leads back to the beginning of the poem — initially baffles our sense of orientation and, as readers, our interpretation. Significantly, this linguistic web, which is made up of Words and Verbs — the two basic elements of verbal communication — implicitly contains an allusion to the deceptive quality of language, and writing: the writer after all is he who manipulates and transforms language. This allusion, however, is doubled by a second one, that simultaneously points in the opposite direction — that is, it equates the word (and language) to timelessness, life and truth. This second meaning is suggested by Knight's perfect handling of what Walter J. Ong calls the "additive oral style of the Bible" — the text that obviously works as the main referent for the entire poem, and that Knight effectively lets reverberate through the use of incremental repetition and parataxis. As the word becomes verb, and consequently life, the creative power of oral communication is also evoked by Knight. The reiterated use of the invariant "b", and the escalation of emphasis are both used as echoes of the rhetorical power of the black preacher, the oral performer par excellence of the African-American community, delivering his Sermon of the Creation.

16Similarly, in a poem entitled "Brother John", Michael Harper builds up on a single phrase that is constantly rearranged, and that works both as a stylistic device that reasserts the theme (of self-assertion) within the single poem, and as a unifying refrain that strings together and gives direction to the entire collection. The phrase is as follows:

Black man:
I'm a black man;
I'm black; I am—
A black man; black—
I'm a black man;
I'm a black man;
I'm a man; black—
I am—. (Harper, 1977, 181)

17What is interesting to note at this point of our discussion is not so much the fact that each time the words are repeated they take on different meanings, as much as that this very technique of constant reorganization ends up by necessarily calling attention to itself, particularly because of the jazz-derived rhythmic scanning of lines that intentionally seem to offer themeselves for performance. Thus, the parallel Harper originally establishes between the work of the poet and that of the jazz musician simply through the use of technical elements of composition, becomes, each time the phrase is repeated, the central theme of this piece. On the other hand, this blurring of the distinctions between poet and musician helps Harper fulfill his wish to pay homage to the determination of black creativity in general and, implicitly, to restate the cathartic function that the work of African-American artists must have within their own community. Just like a declaration of "A love supreme" that speaks directly into the "inner ear".



Chapman, Α., 1974. "An Interview with Michael S. Harper." Arts in Society 2: 463-71.

Harper, Michael, 1977. Images of Kin. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

---- and R. Stepto, 1979. Chant of Saints. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Henderson, Stephen, 1973. Understanding the New Black Poetry. New-York: W. Morrow.

Knight, Etheridge, 1988. "On the Oral Nature of Poetry." Black Scholar, Fall, 1988.1968. Poems from Prison. Detroit: Broadside Press.

---- 1980. Born of a Woman. New and Selected Poems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

---1986. The Essential Etheridge Knight. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Martin, Reginald, 1990. "An Interview with Michael Harper." Black American Literature Forum 24: 3.

Pinsker, S., 1985. Conversations with Contemporary American Writers. Amsterdam: Rodopi.


1 The allusion to Jorge Louis Borges's tale "Pierre Menard, the Author of Quixote", is meant to emphasize that once the text is published it does not entirely "belong" anymore to its author, since each successive reader cross-fertilizes that text with his/her projections and interpretations.

2 Both E. Knight and M. Harper have made this point repeatedly in a number of articles and interviews. Apart from those already cited in the text, see: S. Pinsker, 1985, 107-116; A. Chapman, 1974, 463-471. Though it is not my purpose to reconstruct here the development of the theoretical debate on the "performance of the text" within the African-American poetic tradition — from Hughes's "poetry for the people", down to Baraka's "rhythmic reading lists", and Larry Neals's "Destruction of the Text" — it should be pointed out that both Knight's and Harper's position on this issue is less extreme, but also more effective and convincing than that of many African-American poets of the sixties and seventies.

3 Stephen Henderson, points out that Harper "quotes from the companion poem that Coltrane wrote for the album, building up upon the phrase 'a love supreme' in a manner suggesting a musician improvising on a motif (1973, 49).

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1998

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