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Playing the 12s

DAMN.(Photo credit: http://tinyurl.com/akfynht)

(Photo credit: http://tinyurl.com/akfynht)

The dozensrefers to a ritualized competition of rapidly dueling insults, sometimes rhyming. (A dominant feature of this game: “yo mama” jokes.) Playing the dozens is an African-American tradition, and one at which poet Etheridge Knight excelled. He had a talent for another sort of wordplay as well:

Etheridge Knight began writing poetry while an inmate at the Indiana State Prison and published his first collection, Poems from Prison in 1968. . .When Knight entered prison, he was already an accomplished reciter of “toasts”—long, memorized, narrative poems, often in rhymed couplets, in which “sexual exploits, drug activities, and violent aggressive conflicts involving a cast of familiar folk . . . are related . . . using street slang, drug and other specialized argot, and often obscenities,” explains Lumpkin. Toast-reciting at Indiana State Prison not only refined Knight’s expertise in this traditional Afro-American art form but also, according to Lumpkin, gave him a sense of identity and an understanding of the possibilities of poetry.” Since toast-telling brought him into genuine communion with others, he felt that poetry could simultaneously show him who he was and connect him with other people.”

Here he is infusing haikus with jazz.


Eastern guard tower
glints in sunset; convicts rest
like lizards on rocks.

The piano man
is stingy, at 3 A.M.
his songs drop like plum.

Morning sun slants cell.
Drunks stagger like cripple flies
On jailhouse floor.

To write a blues song
is to regiment riots
and pluck gems from graves.

A bare pecan tree
slips a pencil shadow down
a moonlit snow slope.

The falling snow flakes
Cannot blunt the hard aches nor
Match the steel stillness.

Under moon shadows
A tall boy flashes knife and
Slices star bright ice.

In the August grass
Struck by the last rays of sun
The cracked teacup screams.

Making jazz swing in
Seventeen syllables AIN’T
No square poet’s job.

One comment on “Playing the 12s

  1. […] Playing the 12s (roofpig.wordpress.com) […]

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