beware: do not read this poem

by Ishmael Reed

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Themes and Meanings

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Thematically, “beware: do not read this poem” is a complex case. It is about language, about art, about people, and about politics. Language and art are intimately bound to one another, and they are central aspects of culture. Culture, at least in part, makes people. The poem is therefore about how people are made by, and lost to (other), cultures. It is a protest against cultural dominance, and it works by concrete demonstration.

In the immediate sense, the poem’s theme is about how the poem itself affects, even creates its reader by involving the reader in the world created by the poem. That concept is an exhibition of the power of poetry, for poetry is an act of speech, showing that language, how one uses language, is vital to one’s existence. The poem also shows how a culture can swallow one up, denying one’s real existence. It rejects the idea of art as a simple mirror reflecting life; art is, rather, a living experience.

There are some generic conventions in the poem that may seem at first to be merely decorative or entertaining, but they actually represent essential elements of the theme. In the first section, the convention of the European folktale is derived from a literary, European tradition. This folktale is presented as the product of modern technology—a television plot—which makes it very European American, mechanical and hypnotizing in a negative way. Too, the tale, with its “ol woman,” essentially a witch, in the house which is attacked by “villagers” uses words and images that are not American (“villagers” is not a term commonly used in the United States). Yet, as has been already noted, the poem’s basic language is the language of African America, and there is a deliberate tension between the convention and the language. Indeed, here the language is a protest against the culture implied in the folktale.

The second section is an assertion that the poem, made of language, creates a culture. Although the “ol woman” and her house seem to become the poem, this section really rejects the European American culture of the first part. For the moment, all is African American. Instead of being swallowed by mirrors and disappearing, one is swallowed by the rhythms of the language and is made more alive.

Yet the larger world encompasses, surrounds, this positive one, so the poem must return to the European American world. In the first line of the last section, the speaker speaks of the “us bureau of missing persons,” the “us” obviously standing for United States. However, it is also the pronoun “us,” and the bald statistic presented is a reference to Americans. People are involved in this world of loss, where words do and do not quite make connections between them. Moreover, there is a contrast between the state, the national apparatus, and the individuals, the “us” of the United States. When the poem turns to the dry official language of this section, the language of the dominant culture that the poem is rejecting, the reader again is shown how that culture has swallowed people. The poem must therefore end with its note of regret, for those who have lost people to that culture have a “space” in their lives.

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