Protest Poetry

In beginning to understand these three poems, “Skinhead”, “Buried”, and “The Idea of Ancestry” it becomes clear that all of these poems are protesting in different ways. In Patricia Smith’s “Skinhead” we are introduced to the white supremacist who is clearly very bothered by the fact that “The coloreds and spics got ‘em all” in talking about jobs. In Smith’s second poem, “Buried” it is less clear what is being protested. However, I believe that what is being protested is this idea that people were being forced to literally bury their loved ones and the apparent PTSD it caused those digging the graves. As the title of Knight’s poem suggests, the poem is protesting the idea of ancestry and the ridiculousness of the idea.

Protesting the idea of equality among races is not a ‘cool’ thing to do nowadays. When I first read “Skinhead” my first reaction was, “Wow, this is incredibly racist, nobody in their right mind would write this today.” What I found fascinating is that Patricia Smith is not a white male who, as the poem suggests, lives in the south. She is a black woman writing using the idea of persona poetry. Through the use of this skinhead she is able to grapple with the racism that was present pre and post-civil war. Her imagery is extremely descriptive and she is able to force the reader to see the face that “Scraped pink and brilliant, apple-cheeked.” Though this imagery everyone has the experience of being a skinhead yet each persons’ interpretations of the skinhead is going to be based on their individual life experiences.

In contrast to “Skinhead” Smith’s second poem “Buried” does not rely on the vivid imagery as much as it does on repetition. Upon reading the line “Plunge. Push. Lift. Toss it.” in the third stanza for the first time the repetition struck me as off. It was the only line repeated so far and the two lines were back to back.However, after finishing the entire poem those two lines became an eery representation of the protest at this PTSD experienced while burying the dead, specifically what appears to be a father burying his son. The connection between searching for one’s son under a pile of dolls and having to dig a grave for him is scary. What adds to this eeriness is the difference in spacing between the two lines in the two instances they appear. In the third stanza there is no extra space between the lines giving the reader that this is just a very repetitive process and it could keep going forever. However, in the second case there is a full line gap between the lines which I believe is there solely as a pause for effect. This pausing for dramatic effect is also the reason for the line saying “Toss-” and not “Toss it” as a way of depicting the harsh grasp of reality ripping him from his happy daydreams back to the horrible task at hand.

While the first two poems relied heavily on just one poetic convention, Knight relies on a combination of enjambment and long sentences to give the poem an un poemlike feel. That is to say that by writing in long sentences and enjambment “The Idea of Ancestry” has the feel of a rant more than a poem. This ties heavily into the idea that this poem is a protest against the idea of ancestry. Knight seems to mock the idea that she can share the name of an uncle who is no longer considered to be part of the family. In order to fully explain the long story behind her ancestry she must keep rambling on with very few breaks in between lines until she can explain her frustration with it.

 

My questions to the class are:

  1. Do you see the poems as protesting something other than what I discussed/Is the protest achieved through a different poetic convention?
  2. If we were not to know that Patricia Smith is a black woman alive today would that change how we read her poems? What effect does the actual author have on the persona found in persona poetry?
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4 Responses to Protest Poetry

  1. Steven says:

    I like the idea you presented about “Buried” discussing a protest of having to bury children. When i read the poem i was not sure whether it was this or his job is a grave digger. Whichever it is, the idea of it causing PTSD is strong in this poem, especially with the rhythmic, thoughtless process of digging just done mechanically. Also, i did not pick up on the added line spacing which further justifies the idea of a traumatic experience. Reading it again, i think the memory of a dead son is present in the second to last line, “I want to feel his heat.” There are many things a parent loves about a child and heat is usually not one of them until they become cold.

  2. Patricia Smith’s poems “Skinhead” and “Buried” both read as if a male was the one behind the words. Knowing about the author beforehand almost ruins the experience Smith sets with her imagery. However, knowing the author is a black woman who was born in the late 50’s gives context for the vivid sharp emotions felt in both poems.
    Jeremy mentions, in commenting on “Buried,” “Upon reading the line “Plunge. Push. Lift. Toss it.” in the third stanza for the first time the repetition struck me as off. It was the only line repeated so far and the two lines were back to back. However, after finishing the entire poem those two lines became an eery representation of the protest at this PTSD experienced while burying the dead, specifically what appears to be a father burying his son.” His interpretation of it being a protest of PTSD is an interesting one. The repetition is also for the “ticking jazz” rhythm (11).
    “Buried almost seems as if a protest of letting go. The father figure of the poem digs but describes his progress as “trying to reach the next world with a spoon” (22). However, in the first stanza, in describing the ground the speaker states “there’s nothing but mud” (1). This struggle of actually completing the task of burial parallels the struggle of letting go. The father has a memory of his son while digging, but before the reader hears the conclusion of the night time ritual the father goes back to digging. The father later says “I want to feel his heat and twist in my arms again. I have to dig” (44-45) as if the digging is what is keeping his son alive.

  3. I think the simple fact that this poetry proves that in some way this poem has a comedic element (if that’s a convention). I think it’s playing off the individualistic movement in America. The line begins “they call me skinhead, and I got my own beauty.” This could be making fun of mass market contemporary “life advice.” By placing it in the context of a skinhead, a person one never would expect to be writing individualistic poetry, is quite ironic and funny. You almost empathize with skinhead, like “yea he has his own inner beauty and we should be accepting of that,” which is ludicrous.

  4. Debra Zarny says:

    I had read half of “Skinhead” without realizing who the speaker was. Because I thought it was a protest, I thought Patricia Smith was the speaker and in my annotations I wrote “she.” It was only until she first mentions that the words are coming from a male did I realize that it isn’t coming from Smith, or even a female figure in general. I was stunned by the mention of “The coloreds and spics got ‘em all” and all of the gruesome imagery that she mentions. A lot of it made me cringe because of the speaker’s honesty, but I liked that it was truthful and not glossed over. Reading about her changed my harsh reaction because I realized that this important issue must be on her mind, and must be something important to her that she feels the need to protest about because it is her history.

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