What sort of diction is used in "Ballad of the Landlord"?  

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This poem tells the story of a black man being discriminated against by his white landlord. The poem has three different speakers, and the diction of each of these speakers tells the story of their relationship and the harsh reality of the discrimination faced by African-Americans in the 1930s.

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This poem tells the story of a black man being discriminated against by his white landlord. The poem has three different speakers, and the diction of each of these speakers tells the story of their relationship and the harsh reality of the discrimination faced by African-Americans in the 1930s.

When the black resident is speaking we see small clues to an African-American dialect: “’member” in the first verse, for “remember,” the use of “is” in “these steps is broken down,” “Ten bucks more’n I’ll pay you,” the use of “gonna” and the deletion of the helping verb in the present continuous later on, as in “You talkin’ high and mighty,” and the use of “ain’t.” In these first four verses, the diction is focused on injustice, becoming more and more confrontational as the poem progresses. The first verse is an innocent reminder about the leak the resident told the landlord about the week before; the second verse is a little tongue-in-cheek, the resident noting that “When you come up yourself/It’s a wonder you don’t fall down.” In the third verse we have we have the repetition of “Ten bucks you say,” which adds an element of incredulity to the resident’s voice, and stresses the fact that he believes the ten bucks are not legitimate. In the fourth verse, the resident begins with an exclamation:  “What?” He is getting more exasperated, and frames the following lines as questions, though it is clear the actions have already been taken. This disbelief further emphasizes the unfairness of the landlord’s actions – the resident didn’t see them coming, and he clearly had no reason to believe he would be evicted, because he had done nothing wrong.

When the white landlord is speaking, in the penultimate verse, there is no hint of a dialect – his helping verbs are intact, and there is no shortening of other words. In contrast to the helpless questions asked by the resident, the white man’s lines are marked with exclamation points and intense hyperbole – “He’s trying to ruin the government/And overturn the land!” Exaggerated lies – vague yet damning accusations. The white man is calling upon the patriotism of the police, an irony given how he himself is turning against the values his country was founded upon by discriminating against the resident. The first line of this verse – “Police!  Police!” parallels that of the first two verses spoken by the black man – “Landlord, landlord,” and the calmness of the latter contrasts to the exclamatory nature of the former.  Even when the resident was angry, all he could do was ask rhetorical questions, a sign of his helplessness in this situation; his landlord’s exclamations are in contrast a sign of his dominance.

In the final verse we have a neutral speaker, and instead of phrases or sentences we have lines made up of single words: “Copper’s whistle!/Patrol bell!/Arrest./Precinct Station./Iron Cell.” This at first mirrors the excitement of the preceding verse, and then the exclamation points are replaced by periods. Resignation. A blunt acceptance of the action. These single-word lines, despite their brevity, give us a perfect understanding of what’s happening, and represent the immediacy with which one thing follows another, as well as the unquestionable nature of these events: a black man is arrested, and this leads inevitably to jail time. No question. No real trial. It’s like a factory output of discrimination, mechanical and smooth. Finally, in the last lines of the poem, we get a newspaper headline in all-caps, to sum up what has (or has not actually) happened in the poem. The resident is polite and collected, is provoked over a matter of days through negligence and passive aggression by his landlord, and is then framed by the latter and arrested for no true crime.

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