The art and practice of it (6)

Back to rhythm and meter.

There is a deservedly admired short poem by Gwendolyn Brooks that is worth listening to, “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till” (from The Bean Eaters, 1960, and included in Blacks, 1987).  I’m sure there are many readings available of this poem, but looking at it mostly rhythmically and phonetically, I will add another brief one.

Announcing in the title that the poem is the last stanza of a ballad, Brooks signals that we should imagine a narrative of which this is the final moment.  And she does not follow traditional ballad meter; instead she writes in response to it.  The traditional meter can be seen in many old poems, especially the beautiful Scottish ballads, such as “Sir Patrick Spens” (on line at a number of web sites), which compresses a tragic narrative into a few stanzas, making use of vivid metonyms, such as the cork-heeled shoes that stand for the warriors themselves not wanting to sail, and later, vindicating their apprehension, and signifying their having placed loyalty over safety (pointlessly, in this case), the hats that float on the sea after the ship and the men have gone down.  In this poem a vindictive, cowardly king is chastised forever afterward for the loss of strong young men.

In her one stanza, Brooks has plenty of narrative power, too–implying a narrative she does not need to provide, but to supplement.  Her images are oblique.  She asks us to imagine what we do not see—unlike Emmett Till’s mother, who required that people see what no one would want to see.

“After the Murder, After the Burial,” Brooks writes, as a kind of narrative epigraph.  And she moves us from the imagined ballad of what happened to Emmett Till to a scene in which he is absent, in which his mother is present as the last figure in Till’s own narrative.  The poem begins, “Emmett’s mother is a pretty-faced thing; / the tint of pulled taffy.”  If we listen to the speech stresses, we hear not the balladic four plus three but five plus three (although we could scan the line as four loose metrical feet; but if Brooks had wanted the meter to be close to ballad meter, she could easily have written it that way, given her virtuosity): “Emmett’s mother is a pretty-faced thing; / the tint of pulled taffy.”  The intensity of feeling is concentrated at the end of the utterance: six speech stresses in nine syllables.  The double speech stresses at the end of the first line and at the end of the second are that Ezra-Poundian device I have mentioned in earlier posts in this series: a twentieth-century choice, for roughly metrical or roughly free verse, whichever way one wishes to read it, of a rhythmic figure formerly used in metrical verse.

“She sits in a red room, / drinking black coffee.”  And there it is again, used in the same way.

And again: “She kisses her killed boy. / And she is sorry.”  Now this is “after the burial,” so her son is not in the red room with her.  Brooks runs two moments in time together, perhaps to represent the time-wrenching experience of grief.  By rhythmic stress and by the phonetic figure on the sound of the repeated ki-, Brooks forcefully links the opposites of “kiss” and “kill.”  That is, the love and the horror are brought into the same space by the repeated sounds of those two juxtaposed words, but this is stated and danced, so to speak, simply, and with restraint.  Meanwhile “taffy” and “coffee” rhyme—both are something one ingests, edibles that are not nourishment but rather a self-soothing: candy and caffeine.  (And of course, Emmett’s mother too has been “pulled” into a distorting pain by grief, the absence of retributive justice, and the extinguishing of a life for mere reason of race.)  And then with “taffy” and “coffee” Brooks rhymes “sorry.”  We can sense the phantom utterance of these three rhyme words together; they almost say it, but do not, because they are separated from each other syntactically, and the poem leaves it to us to formulate that utterance by associating the three words with each other.

Chaos in windy grays / through a red prairie.”  The last rhyme shows us the whole pattern of a repeated sound, a phonetic figure used over and over—two syllables, the first one stressed, the second one a long “e” sound.  So we hear not only “prairie,” which goes with “taffy,” “coffee,” and “sorry,” but also “windy” and, in line one, “pretty.”  (I can’t help hearing, also, inside “prairie” another word that is not given: “prayer.”  Not given.  That is, significant by its absence.)

Meanwhile the rhythm has been speeding up.  (Every line except the first two can be scanned as metrical, but the feel of the poem is of rhythmical free verse.)  Four speech stresses in the first line, then three, three, three, three, two, three, two.   If we read what the poem would be if it were restricted to something like four-line (unrhymed) ballad meter—that is, without reading the even-numbered lines of what appear to be eight but which are in fact half-lines completing the four lines that begin at the left margin—then we have: “Emmett’s mother is a pretty-faced thing… She sits in a red room… She kisses her killed boy… Chaos in windy grays…” (in this case, 4 speech stresses, then 3 and 3 and 3.)  That’s an even more compressed version of the whole story, with a final image as commentary.

Interpreting the poem means not only imagining one’s way into what is only implied, but also listening to how the rhythms and repeated sounds emphasize what is stated.  “Emmett’s mother is a pretty-faced thing”—but those who know the history know that the boy himself was not pretty-faced, after what had been done to him, and his mother insisted that his coffin remain open at his funeral so that people could see what had happened to him.  She did not allow them to think that the brutality of what had happened to a young boy might perhaps be less horrifying than in fact it was.

The loneliness of Till’s mother; the emptiness of an abstract landscape of “windy grays” moving “through a red prairie”—these are the absence of a humane presence anywhere or everywhere.  The “red room” and the “red prairie” are equated by color: blood, a social and political chaos, an absence of right, a chaotic presence of inhumanity.   “Red prairie”: Brooks was a great satirist, a great social observer; here she ends with an emphatically rhythmic image that is not human, not social, not even literally real.  What can one say?

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