Gwendolyn Brooks and Form

“Our selection” refers to chosen passages from A Street in Bronzeville, published in 1945.

In our selection, the first named ballad is “the ballad of chocolate Mabbie” but several of the other poems have balladic rhyme or structure. The ballad can be used to express love, like with the one about Mabbie, but it can also be used to intensely describe a character and invoke emotion (like with Blues ballads). Nonetheless, I’m really curious as to how Brooks uses the ballad to problematize these notions of the form and unsettle or give commentary to other social issues within the form.

As to this second point, I’m really interested–and perhaps this is a question more than an observation–in what the form affords the content: how does the form impact Brooks’ taking up of interracial love or white supremacy/preference for whiter complexion in “the ballad of chocolate Mabbie,” about Willie Boone’s choosing a white “lynx” over Mabbie’s chocolate complexion? How does the form of the ballad help to emphasize the differences drawn out between Sadie and Maud in the poem of the same name?

How does the balladic structure almost make tragic the story of De Witt Williams in “of De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery”? Is it just the imagery in “The Last Quatrain of The Ballad of Emmett Till” that makes it so aptly tragic (here I’m thinking specifically of “tint of pulled taffy” “she is sorry” and “chaos in windy grays”) or is it this imagery in combination with the balladic form which makes the repetition of that rhyme (taffy, coffee, sorry, prairie) almost a recircling of grief?

As a poet, I’m always thinking about why one may use form–what possibilities does form open up? It is a common misconception, in my belief, that forms somehow create rigidity (a lot of times people call forms “rigid”). On the one hand, the structure provides an outline. On the other–and this is more interesting to me–there is a historical use of the form and the affordances/the affect of the form’s structure. For example, with the ballad structure, one must ask “What effect does the repetition of the rhyme create?” With the song, “How does the performative nature of this form relate to 1) its overall content and 2) its lyrical imagery?”

At every word, the poet makes a decision. I’m curious what we can discover together about Brooks’ decisions.

On Pound’s “A Pact”

Image rendered from

Pound begins the poem by presenting opposites, wanting to form a pact with Walt Whitman despite having detested him and then again with the image of a “grown child” in line 3. The image of the pig-headed father is also somewhat of an opposite in that pig-headed means obstinate or stubborn (OED) and yet the speaker of the poem is abstaining from his/her typical stubborn behavior of detesting Walt Whitman by now making a pact with him. This is all presuming, of course, that making a pact is only something someone does with someone they do not detest (though one might make the argument that may not necessarily be the case). Nonetheless, the image of the “grown child” seems to be setting up some sort of opposition.

The speaker also seems to be calling attention to time’s construction. The verb tenses shift from present (I make) to past participle (I have detested) back to present (I come) back to past participle again (Who has had) to present again (I am old) then simple past (It was you that broke) to present (Now is). Beyond the tense shifts, the speaker says “I am old enough now” (5) as if within the “now”-ness of the present tense, there is also an “old.” In other words, recognizing old-ness also recognizes that time passes—that something, here “I,” goes from young to old over a period of time. But that word “old” is smushed in between present tense “am” and a reference to the present, “now” (5), rendering time in the fifth line inconsistent in that there is both a set, stationary present in the “now”-ness and a passage or movement of time in the word “old.” Further down in the poem, the speaker even says “now is a time” — using the unspecific article “a” over “the,” implying there are several times, one of which is “now” (7).

The notion of carving Walt Whitman’s “new wood” in conjunction with Pound’s words in “RE VERS LIBRE” (1913) seems to refer to taking a wider free verse, long Whitman line and chiseling it down to something more structured and succinct (6). Pound has done just that. Each of these lines are purposefully broken, all but one by punctuation, and the poem itself is presented in no set meter or form, giving it a “commerce” shared between Whitman and Pound (9).

The OED defines commerce as “Exchange between men of the products of nature or art,” giving credence to the idea of a shared sap and root between the speaker and Whitman in line 8; however, my understanding of commerce is in the mercantile or economic sense– that there is monetary value about an object that becomes traded and in that sense, there is a commercial relationship between the traders of that object. Were poetry to be this object, as I understand wood to be functioning that way in this poem, then both uses of commerce seem to fit to Pound’s use. However, I don’t want to stop at “well, it works,” either– why use commerce? Wood is a natural good, so perhaps the metaphor extends into choosing that word “commerce.” What do you think?

Abdulrazzak’s “Shadow of Their Former Selves”

For this, I am pulling from the Nadje Al-Ali and Deborah Al-Najjar collection entitled We Are Iraqis: Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War. The image used here is also used as the jacket art for the book, entitled Iraqi Landscape 2005 by Hashim Al-Tawil.


“Father was whisked off in a black Mercedes,
Through a night hole hastily sprung,
Emerging on the other side to the warmth
Of an interrogation cell.”

“Shadow of their Former Selves”
Hassan Abdulrazzak


The first thing I notice about this stanza of the poem is the second line: “Through a night hole hastily sprung” where the predicate and subject in the syntax have been inverted in the sentence. It still grammatically makes sense, but it doesn’t take much to see the difference between “Father was whisked off in a black Mercedes” and “[Father was] through a night hole hastily sprung.” What does this syntactical inversion do?

For me, my experience reading this, that second line threw me out – I was confused and I didn’t really know what it was saying. I was forced to re-read the line so I could understand. So, there’s this pause then. A stop that interrupts the otherwise consistent syntax of the stanza and the poem. In the same way, the father in the poem’s being taken was a brief pause in the regular on-goings of the poem.

Most of the readings acknowledge that the experience of the Iran-Iraq War, the sanctions, and then the 2003 invasion and on-going occupation were all a slow cakewalk, each step different and more severe than the one before it. But most of them acknowledge a specific moment where it’s obvious there is no going back – a pause in the syntax of their ongoings where an inversion occurs.

I want to hastily resist pushing all of these pieces into a one-size-fits-all understanding of the obvious plurality that Iraqi art and experience showcases in We Are Iraqis, so I will digress on this point – with the acknowledgement that while Al-Ali and Al-Najjar demand the collection’s mosaicity, the very existence of this collection seems to be an attempt to invoke that collectivity while still demanding “collection”’s lack as a term.

Back to Abdulrazzak’s third stanza, second line: I’m also drawn into the words (whether it’s because in English the syllable stresses are on these) “night hole” and “hastily sprung.” The term night hole is not one I’m familiar with and after an extensive google search it seems to be an Abdulrazzak neologism, but I’m guessing from the fourth line of the stanza that the night hole is perhaps the keyhole? door of some sort? that leads into an interrogation cell. And yet it isn’t called a keyhole or door. It’s called a night hole. What is the effect of calling it a night hole? A hole is a hollow space in an otherwise solid body or surface. To call it a “night” hole, as if its very existence depends on the time of day seems to imply that the darkness (literal and figurative – invoked from the first line “black Mercedes”) of night is something the hole requires. A hole is also defined informally as a small unpleasant place. But this unpleasant-ness or this informal image of the hole seems to contrast the “warmth” in the third line. The whole both requires its night-ness and its warmth. Now I’m thinking of a damp, hollowed out place in the ground. The warmth from the dirt. But the warmth doesn’t come from the dirt in the poem, it comes from the interrogation cell, from the interrogation. “warmth of an interrogation cell” – So the interrogation is heated? Is what makes the hole warm and nightly the interrogation combined with the feeling of being whisked off in a black Mercedes.



To spring means to move or jump suddenly upward or forward. He was sprung into the interrogation cell’s warmth via the night hole. But to spring also means to originate from, as in “to spring forth from.” Thus, Father was not only hastily thrown into the warmth of the interrogation /interrogation cell, he has also come from that night hole. I don’t know that there could be a more perfect understanding of this piece than being both sprung into and sprung from. The speaker’s parents are simultaneously themselves and shadows of their former selves. As Sinan Antoon puts it “I am forced to return [home] every day, but not to a physical space … Thousands rot…selling their future after having been robbed of their present and past” (25). Father is both originated from the night hole and sprung into it the same way Antoon’s Barbarian is both forced to return home “as much as [he tries] not to” and home is the place from which he originated.


What does it mean to be the shadow of one’s former self?

Just briefly, displacement is where I want to move with this question. To say the speaker’s parents are not themselves, not their former selves, but shadows of their former selves. That’s three degrees of displacement. Refugee status is granted to those who apply and are accepted by the U.N. as people who have been physically displaced for fear of violence or death. But what about emotional displacement? Could a shadow of one’s former self be the definition of an emotional refugee? This relates to a notion of both being sprung into and sprung out of one’s home because the emotional refugee may not ever truly be ‘displaced’ the same way one can be physically displaced. Instead, in a muddled way, saying someone is a “shadow of their former self” still acknowledges the self in there. In other words, this emotional displacement – status as an emotional refugee – may be the experience of being both simultaneously sprung out of home and sprung into home.

However, again I want to be careful not to lump all refugees into any sort of box. Nor do I want to try and take this poem as an understanding of The Refugee, as in all refugees. So, while I’m beginning to reach for larger scaled understandings of the refugee experience, I want to acknowledge that making statements about the emotional status of a refugee neither acknowledges the complexity of humanness that exists in every refugee nor can it ever be complete in its definition in the same way the human experience can itself never be completely explained.

The Prince of Dust: Saadi Youssef and Modern Poetics in The Occupied Arab World

This is a blogpost written for my class “Literature of the Middle East and North Africa” taught by Dr. Angela Naimou in Fall 2016. Our assignment every week is to write 500 words on our reading assignment. This week we were instructed to pick one or two lines from one of Saadi Youssef’s poetry (trans. by Khaled Mattawa), which we read alongside Mattawa’s introduction to his volume of translated Youssef poetry Without an Alphabet, Without a Face


I do not want your hand. Do not toss me your rope made of tatters.

— “Reception,” Saadi Youssef (trans. Khaled Mattawa)


I. Punctuation

The punctuation is simple, predictable. Just two periods annotating the end of each statement. The first sentence seems more open than the second, not only because the first is declarative while the second is imperative but also because quite literally the first sentence requires open-mouth to form the vowel for “I do not…” while the second sentence begins with a consonant — which are verbally more assertive. Thus, we go from the open (perhaps more amiable) “I do not want your hand” to the critical, more essential “Do not toss me your rope made of tatters.” However, while the second sentence may seem to be more explosive, it is still punctuated by a period. So while it may begin with a slightly more explosive sound with the consonant and its feeling as an imperative may begin as a louder tone, the sentence as a whole feels more instructive with a subdued, offended anger rather than a fed-up revolutionary or war-like anger.

This reminds me of Mattawa’s introduction of the material when he talks about Youssef’s preference of the whisper over a declamation, “as it captures both the intimacy and the urgency of an utterance.” I think that seems to be what we see here in this quotation from “Reception.” This is not a shout. It begins with the intimacy of both image (a hand) and sound (open vowel sound of “I” and first-person) and then arrives at the more-urgent “Do not” with the consonant and (in the second sentence more abruptly) with the imperative.


II. POV and rhetorical position & function

The first sentence is in first-person POV and the second sentence has an implied second-person POV. Together, these two also create a close intimacy – that of the (implied) “you” and the “I.” While this may seem like a short and simple explanation without excitement, in the context of the poem itself, which is a meditation on all of life, this is extremely intimate.

The speaker is juxtaposing several images (in a single line even) that may line-by-line not hold much correlation but that wholly become an essence or microcosm of a greater identity. By this, I mean while one or two lines may not give us any sort of lead about what a poem quote-unquote “is about,” reading several lines and indeed the entire poem gathers into this wider essence that itself is a microcosm of some memory, location, event, and/or people.

The poem features these intimate moments in different POVs – some are in third-person, some in first-person. The only imperative sentence in the entire poem is in my quotation: “Do not toss me your rope made of tatters.” Plus, it is one of only two sentences in the whole poem in second-person. What does this do for the poem? Well, it means our most intimate moment is an imperative, a command. The other second-person sentence is “They are chanting for you, girl of the harbor tavern.” Because the “you” is named in the appositive at the end of the sentence, the sentence does not have as close intimacy as second-person normally has. Thus, again, the most intimate moment in the entire poem (between “you” and “I”) is these two sentences, the first a repudiation of help and the second a command.


III. [I don’t know what to title this section…Conclusion, maybe?]

I’ve already reached my word-count talking about the functions of the specific mechanics of these two lines in the poem so I won’t spend much more time here, but I haven’t even talked about why I chose these two lines. What interests me most about this material specifically is what Mattawa calls Youssef’s “greatest contribution to contemporary Arabic poetry [: …] to preserve the dignity of personal experience, despite and within a context of difficult socio-political realities in his native Iraq and in the Arab world at large.” My quotation shows and intimate moment that does emanate personal dignity: I will not take your help; I did not ask for it; Do not pretend to care for me by giving me your second-rate “help.”

If indeed “the creation of personal freedom was the third frontier for Arab poetry” after (1) wrestling stagnant traditions and (2) wrestling the forces of colonialism, then that freedom also includes the freedom to say no. I think what we’ll encounter (especially once we get to the Lila Abu-Lughod piece) is that no genuine intimacy is ever established between the West and its colonial subjects in the Middle East, no intimacy that would allow for the freedom to say “No, we don’t want your help;” because while we become a part of our own self-rendered colonial narrative of granting Freedom, we do not seem to wonder (1) why we have the right to ‘grant’ it at all and (2) whether those to whom we grant it actually asked for it.