‘Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane‘ was written by Etheridge Knight and published as a part of an anthology Poems from Prison in 1986. The poem is an allegory of the discriminatory treatment of black inmates, explicitly focusing on the character of Hard Rock.
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‘Hard Rock Returns to Prison‘ describes black inmates’ oppression and forced submission in 20th-century America.
‘Hard Rock Returns to Prison‘ tells the story of Hard Rock, a black inmate who did not obey the prison authorities and had a lobotomy forced onto him. As a result, he became docile and lived in a semi-vegetative state.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure, Form, and Rhyme Scheme
‘Hard Rock Returns to Prison‘ is separated into five stanzas: 2 sestets (6 lines), two octets ( 8 lines), and a dizain (10 lines). The separation into stanzas also separates the story of Hard Rock into different parts: the ‘before’, the ‘during’, the ‘after’, and the impact of ‘after’ on the other inmates.
‘Hard Rock Returns to Prison‘ explores the themes of racism, incarceration, oppression and forced submission of black inmates in the 20th-century United States.
The poem explores the themes of forced submission and silencing in the second and fourth stanzas, which describe the process of the lobotomy and the effect it had on Hard Rock’s behaviour.
Literary Devices & Punctuation
- Imagery: a poetic device that consists of visually descriptive language to immerse the reader in the poem. Knight uses imagery when describing Hard Rock in the first stanza.
- Simile: a literary device that creates a comparison using prepositions (e.g. ‘like’, ‘as’). Knight uses a simile when comparing post-surgery Hard Rock to a ‘freshly gelded stallion’.
- Metaphor: a literary device that creates a comparison without prepositions (e.g. ‘like’, ‘as’). Knight uses a metaphor in the third stanza when he compares the most exciting piece of gossip to a jewel.
- Enjambment: a poetic device that allows for the continuation of a sentence between lines without the use of final punctuation.
- Caesura: a poetic device that breaks up a line in a stanza via punctuation.
The combination of enjambment and caesura creates an uneven rhythm and tone, showing the unbalanced journey of Hard Rock and therefore reflecting on the disproportionate discrimination that black inmates face.
Knight uses multiple first-person narratives in ‘Hard Rock Returns to Prison‘. The poem is written from the perspective of inmates as they idolise Hard Rock and then lose their role model. Knight’s use of the first-person narrative is effective as it provides the reader with a perspective and a lens to look through. Despite talking about a limited subsection of the population ( prisoners), Knight uses a universal feeling to describe the pain of losing a role model, and the emotional isolation one feels when having no one to support them.
Born in 1931, Knight dropped out of high school to join the army and fight in the Korean War (1950-53). He was injured by a piece of shrapnel from an explosion and sent back to the United States. To cope with the pain and difficulties of civilian life, Knight turned to narcotics.
In 1960, he was arrested for robbery and spent eight years in Indiana State Jail, where he started writing poetry to cope. In his 1986 anthology Poems from Prison, he writes, “I 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.” ‘Hard Rock Returns to Prison’ is one of the poems published in the collection and is most likely a reflection of the mistreatment of black inmates.
‘Hard Rock Returns to Prison‘ uses the slang term ‘Screws’ to refer to prison guards. Although the term may initially refer to the abuse of power and sexual violence rampant in prisons, it cites the Victorian prison punishment. The word originates in the Victorian era (1838-1901), wherein prisons were used entirely for punishment and not for the rehabilitation of inmates.
The guards would punish prisoners with useless tasks, such as turning a handle on a wooden drum. The correctional officer would fill the drum with sand or water to make it heavier, and the inmate would have to complete a certain number of turns. The guards would tighten the screws on the handle, making the job more difficult for the inmate, therefore ‘screwing’ them over.
The ‘N’ Word
‘Hard Rock Returns to Prison‘ uses the racial slur widely used to offend and belittle Black people in America. Originating in the 18th century, it stems from the Spanish word ‘negro’, derived from Latin ‘niger.’ The term became a slur in the 20th century and was often used to discriminate against Black African-Americans in the US, creating a cultural separation between the races.
Hard Rock’s character description uses the slur. The phrases that use the word are contextually important: even though Hard Rock was not ‘mean’, he was still called an offensive slur. Regardless of the lack of a bad characteristic, he is still inferior due to his race, which speaks volumes about the racism that was normal in the prisons.
The second time the word has positive connotations – the other inmates view him as a hero. ‘Crazy’ is an encouragement: Hard Rock was the ‘doer of things’, meaning he was the one that openly defied authority. Therefore the other prisoners considered him a role model.
Hard Rock / was / “known not to take no shit
From nobody,” and he had the scars to prove it:
Split purple lips, lumbed ears, welts above
His yellow eyes, and one long scar that cut
Across his temple and plowed through a thick
Canopy of kinky hair.
The first stanza of ‘Hard Rock Returns to Prison’ introduces the character of Hard Rock- an inmate who was seemingly indestructible. The word ‘was’ is in between two slashes, foreshadowing that Hard Rock will lose his dignity.
The use of quotation marks in the first and second lines of the stanza indicates that they are rumours: something that other inmates have deduced. However, the physical description is not in quotation marks, as it is visible to everyone in prison. Hard Rock proudly carried his ‘battle scars’ – his physical appearance separated him from the rest of the inmates.
Hard Rock is visually unappealing: he has bruised lips, yellow eyes (most likely referring to jaundice) and scars. The use of ‘welt’ is effective as it alludes to whip scars – something most enslaved individuals had during slavery in the United States. The description of Hard Rock’s hair lets the reader know that he is Black as ‘kinky’ refers to the curl pattern of hair in black individuals.
Third-person language is essential: Knight sets the tone and mood for the poem by describing Hard Rock and giving him intimidating physical characteristics: swollen lips, many scars, and a large amount of hair. Due to the hair texture that Hard Rock has, it would not lie flat but instead create an Afro around his head. Using’ canopy of hair’ is effective as it brings up the image of trees: something not only stoic and immovable but also visually enlarges the person.
The WORD / was / that Hard Rock wasn’t a mean nigger
Anymore, that the doctors had bored a hole in his head,
And we all waited and watched, like a herd of sheep,
To see if the WORD was true.
The second stanza of ‘Hard Rock Returns to Prison’ describes the lobotomy process of Hard Rock and the anticipation of the result. Knight uses both caesura and enjambment in this stanza to demonstrate the anxiety and tension of the inmates.
The capitalisation of ‘word’ is intentional as it further highlights that no one was close enough to Hard Rock to know first-hand details; instead, the prisoners passed rumours around the entire prison. Additionally, it highlights the isolation and emotional solitude of Hard Rock. Once again, Knight put ‘was’ between two slashes, foreshadowing something would change the tough inmate. The use of ‘ni**er’ reflects the casual use of offensive language towards and between inmates. After all, they are already imprisoned; a slur will hardly exacerbate their prison sentence. Knight deliberately includes the offence to explore how inmates are belittled by not only the guards but by their peers.
The keyword of the stanza is ‘anymore’. Knight chose to use a line break: a poetic device in which a sentence or phrase splits between multiple lines. ‘Anymore’ is moved from the end of the first to the start of the second line, stressing the irreversible change that Hard Rock will go through.
Knight uses the poetic technique of irony to introduce the lobotomy process since a doctor is a medical professional supposed to have one’s best interest in mind. However, Hard Rock was tortured at the hands of those considered to be caring for him. The blunt descriptions are compelling because Knight used direct, simple wording to describe the procedure. In turn, it evokes the emotions of disgust, fear, and pity for Hard Rock. The use of ‘bore’ is productive as it brings to mind heavy construction machinery; it connotes brute force, which, therefore, shows the lack of care for Hard Rock’s health and wellbeing.
While the lobotomy can be somewhat justified, the inclusion of ‘shooting electricity’ is an added description of unnecessary torture. The prison authority made sure to make the experience as close to death as possible. The phrase alludes to death by electrocution – a form of capital punishment in which an inmate is subjected to over 2,000 volts, the sheer force killing the person in under a minute.
The use of electrocution as capital punishment was widespread when Knight was in prison, as the Supreme Court ended the moratorium in 1976. The magnitude of the electrical energy delivered in the execution is so powerful that it instantly causes brain death by destroying the brain and central nervous system.
In the context of ‘Hard Rock Returns to Prison’, the descriptions are not only essential but effective: they reflect on the death of the body part that made Hard Rock who he was. By not only removing a part of his brain but depolarising what remained, Hard Rock would have lost the last of his integrity. Already imprisoned, he lacks freedom and has now lost control over his thoughts, emotions and actions.
The second part of the stanza describes the events after the surgery. Even though Hard Rock has just been through a surgery, he is still under maximum security. He is both handcuffed and chained, which demonstrates his inherent power.
Using simile effectively makes a stark comparison between Hard Rock and the other inmates. A stallion is a male horse with connotations of nobility, strength, and freedom, while sheep are thought to be simple-minded followers with a ‘herd’ mentality. The animal imagery is compelling: Knight uses two contrasting animals to highlight the difference between Hard Rock and the other prisoners. Moreover, Knight’s use of metaphor to reflect on the loss of freedom is powerful; to ‘geld’ a stallion means to castrate him: a total loss of reproductive freedom in animals. Castration is performed to decrease aggression and stop the spread of like-qualities. The allusion effectively links back to Hard Rock and his effect on others: the prison authorities were scared that other inmates would inherit Hard Rock’s defiant behaviour.
The other inmates wait to hear about Hard Rock. Just as a herd of sheep needs its ram ( a male sheep that leads the flock), so too do the inmates need their leader. The use of ‘waited and watched’ is productive: it highlights the emotional separation of prisoners. Even though they look up to Hard Rock, they are not there to support him; Knight makes them passive and completely powerless, highlighting the lack of freedom in prisons.
As we waited we wrapped ourselves in the cloak
Of his exploits: “Man, the last time, it took eight
And then the jewel of a myth that Hard Rock had once bit
A screw on the thumb and poisoned him with syphilitic spit.
In the third stanza of ‘Hard Rock Returns to Prison’, Knight focuses on the rumours spread by the other inmates. It is clear that Hard Rock has amassed a formidable reputation: the others view him as aggressive and violent, which is reflected by his physical description in the first stanza.
Literary and Poetic Devices
Knight’s use of the first-person narrative is particularly effective in this stanza: the inmates are discussing some of the rumours of Hard Rock, denoted by quotation marks. This stanza is almost nostalgic: the prisoners are sitting around and reminiscing. Knight uses a metaphor when describing the rumours: just as a cloak protects its wearer against the full force of nature, so too do the talks protect the inmates against isolation. Knight uses anacoluthons to convey the conversational tone of the stanza.
Additionally, Knight uses a metaphor to compare the most exciting piece of gossip to a jewel: something precious and expensive. The comparison is effective: when someone’s freedom is taken away, they immediately lose a lot of privileges and leisurely aspects of life, and the things that remain are automatically more valuable. The inspiration and hope that Hard Rock brings others are as fine as a jewel.
The first rumour refers to Hard Rock’s physical prowess: it took multiple correctional officers to contain Hard Rock and put him in an isolation cell. The use of the nickname ‘Hole’ for an isolation cell further adds to the conversational tone of the stanza. The Hole is mentioned again; the inmates are discussing Hard Rock’s patience and self-control. Being incarcerated is highly damaging to one’s mental health, exacerbated by additional isolation. Hard Rock has spent over two months without human contact, which shows his resilience.
Hard Rock defies authority – he has hit one of the guards with a lunch tray, demonstrating insubordination and aggression. These qualities impress other inmates, and they consider Hard Rock their ‘leader’.
Knight uses the phrase ‘crazy ni**er’ to demonstrate the approval of the other prisoners. Outside the prison, being a strong, intimidating Black man is regarded negatively, whereas, in prison, those qualities make Hard Rock stand out positively: the other prisoners have chosen him as a leader.
Syphilis is a serious bacterial infection, usually caused by unprotected sexual contact. It was common to consider Black people unsanitary and their practices unhygienic. Multiple experiments have been done on Black men that have contracted syphilis and yet weren’t treated for it. The Tuskegee experiments, done in Alabama, and the Guatemalan syphilis experiments are some of the most famous cases of medical human rights violation by the United States government.
In the latter of the two experiments, syphilis-infected sex workers had intercourse with Black prisoners without informing them of the disease, and in the Tuskegee experiments, Black men were used as incubators of the disease and given placebos and ineffective medicine as a cure. Both experiments involved thousands of people, and Knight effectively uses bitter sarcasm to allude to them.
The testing came, to see if Hard Rock was really tame.
A hillbilly called him a black son of a bitch
And Hard Rock did nothing. Just grinned and looked silly,
His eyes empty like knot holes in a fence.
In the fourth stanza of ‘Hard Rock Returns to Prison, Knight describes how the prison guards ‘tested’ Hard Rock for aggression after his lobotomy. The stanza is written from an outside perspective, in a third-person narrative, effectively conveying the lack of emotional connection between Hard Rock and others. This, therefore, creates a chasm: just a stanza before the inmates were gathered, sharing stories of Hard Rock and idolising him, now he is on his own.
The use of ‘testing’ is effective as it creates tension and anticipation. Knight continuously uses animal imagery and metaphors, which subtly connect the stanzas. The use of ‘tame’ refers to the domestication and submission of previously wild animals- this effectively reflects Hard Rock’s lobotomy, which was supposed to do just that. The choice of ‘tame’ constructively ties with the image of a gelded stallion in the second stanza. Hard Rock is no longer a free, wild, strong animal; he is now docile and pliant. Knight refers to the animal domestication process to reflect on animals’ forced submission.
Tension and Emotional Proximity
Knight uses a ‘hillbilly’ to degrade Hard Rock, creating a visual of submission and silencing. A hillbilly is an uneducated person, often lacking class and manners. This forms a parallel that many Black people at the time were familiar with: ignorant, White people openly disrespecting Black people. The hillbilly offended not only Hard Rock but also his mother by calling her a ‘bitch’. This was common: while Caucasians were judged as individuals, Black people were judged as a race. This highlights the racism in America and how xenophobia and individualism infiltrated every aspect of people’s lives.
The following person to ‘test’ Hard Rock is a familiar prison guard- a figure that Hard Rock has defied. Knight effectively builds up tension in the stanza by increasing the emotional proximity of the castigator to Hard Rock. Additionally, the correctional officer applied physical force to elicit a reaction from Hard Rock; however, he remained docile. His lack of response is deliberate- the lobotomy drastically changed Hard Rock’s behaviour. Instead of lashing out and regaining his status as a formidable opponent, he does nothing, solidifying the surgery’s success.
Knight’s description of intimidation mirrors the testing of wild animals. They are also subjected to intimidation and physical and auditory triggers when being trained and tamed. Not only does Knight draw an impressive parallel, but he also reflects on the standard comparison of Black people to animals. An example of the comparison can be seen in Shakespeare’s Othello, in which Iago called dark-skinned Othello a ‘barbary horse’ and ‘old black ram’, alluding to the explosive temper of Black people.
And even after we discovered that it took Hard Rock
Exactly 3 minutes to tell you his first name,
We told ourselves that he had just wised up,
The fears of years, like a biting whip,
Had cut deep bloody grooves
Across our backs.
The fifth and final stanza of ‘Hard Rock Returns to Prison expresses the grief that the inmates experience upon losing Hard Rock. Knight effectively portrays the prisoners as child-like: they look up to Hard Rock, and even after they are made aware of the lack of Hard Rock’s previous bravado and power, they are still hoping for a change and regarding him as a role model.
The use of ‘exact’ time effectively portrays the mental retardation that Hard Rock is experiencing, which creates a parallel between the middle and end of the poem. In the third stanza, the inmates ‘wrapped themselves’ in the memories of Hard Rock’s prowess, whereas in this stanza, they are increasingly disappointed. Knight creates a contextual juxtaposition which is chronologically effective. At the start of the poem, Hard Rock is a man with incredible strength, resilience, and reflexes; now he’s a shell of a person, living in a borderline vegetative state.
Despite harbouring hope at the beginning of the stanza, by the middle they averted their eyes, unable to look at their leader being humiliated. The single-word sentence ‘Crushed’ followed by a full stop has a tone of finality.
The last lines of the stanza the prisoners yet again reminisce about Hard Rock’s strength and might, gone in a day. The capitalisation of ‘destroyer’ suggests that it is another nickname given to Hard Rock, demonstrating his power. The prisoners nostalgically recount the hope that they had for Hard Rock, and how much he inspired them. Hope is akin to currency for those incarcerated, and losing their last shred of independence must have been unbearable.
Lastly, Knight leaves the reader with an eerie allusion to slavery. The use of ‘whip’ implies the punishment that thousands have received during the period of Slavery in the US. The whip of fear has left irreversible scars and damage on the minds of the inmates. Additionally, Knight implies that losing a reliable role model in prison is similar to losing a family member during Slavery, as families were often torn apart when sold to white merchants. Just as White people could take out their aggression and dissatisfaction on helpless Black slaves that had no say in the matter, so too did Hard Rock endure awful circumstances against his will.
Hard Rock had been lobotomised, meaning he had received a lobotomy, a type of psychosurgery in which a part of the brain is removed or altered to treat mental illness and mood disorders.
The prison doctors performed a lobotomy to reduce Hard Rock’s aggression.
‘Screw’ is a nickname for the prison authority.
‘Poems from Prison‘, which included ‘Hard Rock Returns to Prison,’ was published in 1986.
‘Hard Rock Returns to Prison‘ is not only about racism, but that is a large part of it. The poem is about the oppression and silencing of black inmates in America in the 20th century.
Those who enjoyed ‘Hard Rock Returns to Prison’ might consider looking into the following poems:
- ‘In the Prison Pen‘ by Herman Melville describes an inmate’s hopelessness when unable to recount their past life.
- ‘Not My Business‘ by Niyi Osundare explores the grave consequences of staying silent in the face of oppression.
- ‘The Garden‘ by Hilda Dolittle uses natural imagery to recall the poet’s experience with oppression.