beware: do not read this poem Analysis

Ishmael Reed

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Beware: do not read this poem” is written in free verse, divided into six unequal stanzas. There are no capital letters, and the poem has many spelling irregularities and abbreviations, with apparently random spacing in many lines. There are very few punctuation marks except for an occasional comma or slash, usually in an odd place. However, a single voice speaks the whole poem, and, although there are no neat markers to indicate divisions, the poem can be divided into three distinct parts. Moreover, despite its appearance on the page, the “grammar” of the poem is straightforward and clear.

A story is told in the first three stanzas. This story, a kind of modern folktale, is related by the speaker as he synopsizes the plot of a television show he has just watched (“tonite, thriller”). The episode concerned an old woman who was so vain that she filled her house with mirrors, becoming finally so wrapped up in the mirrors that they became her life and she locked herself indoors. Eventually “the villagers” broke into her house, but she escaped by disappearing into a mirror. Thereafter, she seemed to haunt the house. Everyone who lived there “lost a loved one to/ the ol woman in the mirror.”

In the fourth stanza the poem changes; instead of narrative fantasy, the poem becomes more discursive, and the speech pattern becomes more concrete. Now the voice speaks of the poem itself as though it were the mirrors or the old...

(The entire section is 415 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem is not realistic narrative or even a typical fantasy story. It is, rather, about language and how language makes culture. Three types of language usage appear in the poem. In the first section, although the voice seems to be African American, there is an underlying European style of speech and a European subject. It is written with run-on sentences, the sense going from line to line. The run-on sentences have a different rhythm from the second section, suggesting a cultural difference. The second section is much more rhythmic, more African American. The last section is almost dry, until the final quietly sad statement about there being a “space” in the lives of those left behind.

The sounds in the poem are essential to its meaning. Most European American poetry is umbilically connected to the written word. Even the oral poetry of poets such as Allen Ginsberg is very “literary”; its roots are in the letter. Reed’s poem, on the other hand, uses the rhythms and short lines of actual speech—at bottom African American speech—although there are some careful exceptions to the accurate representation of speech. The deliberate misspellings, the lack of standard punctuation, the contractions, are speech, speech with rhythm, reflecting the community that is their base. The poem is, despite or even because of its appearance on the page, the result of a living oral tradition—yet, paradoxically, it uses “literature” as a foil.


(The entire section is 426 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Beauford, Fred. “A Conversation with Ishmael Reed.” Black Creation 4 (1973): 12-15.

Bryant, Jerry H. “Old Gods and New Demons: Ishmael Reed and His Fiction.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction 4 (1984): 195-202.

Chaney, Michael A. “Slave Cyborgs and the Black Infovirus: Ishmael Reed’s Cybernetic Aesthetics.” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies 49 (Summer, 2003): 261-283.

Dick, Bruce Allen, ed. The Critical Response to Ishmael Reed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Dick, Bruce, and Amritjit Singh, eds. Conversations with Ishmael Reed. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.

Gates, Henry Louis. “Ishmael Reed.” In Afro-American Writers After 1955, edited by Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984.

Harde, Roxanne. “’We Will Make Our Own Future Text’: Allegory, Iconoclasm, and Reverence in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 43 (Summer, 2002): 361-377.

McGee, Patrick. Ishmael Reed and the Ends of Race. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

Martin, Reginald. Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.

Mvuyekure, Pierre-Damien. “American Neo-HooDooism: The Novels of Ishmael Reed.” In The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel, edited by Maryemma Graham. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Mvuyekure, Pierre-Damien, ed. A Casebook Study of Ishmael Reed’s “Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down.” Normal, Ill.: Dalkey Archive, 2003.

Nicholls, David G. “Ishmael Reed.” In Postmodernism: The Key Figures, edited by Hans Bertens and Joseph Natoli. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002.

O’Brien, John. “Ishmael Reed.” In The New Fiction, edited by Joe David Bellamy. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974.

Schmitz, Neil. “Neo-HooDoo: The Experimental Fiction of Ishmael Reed.” Twentieth Century Literature 20 (April, 1974): 126-140.