beware: do not read this poem

by Ishmael Reed

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The Poem

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“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 woman, warning the reader that “the hunger of this poem is legendary” and telling the reader to “back off,” for the poem swallows people. Thus the poem itself becomes a kind of devourer, not merely a mirror that reflects the external world. There is a significant difference, though, between the poem and the mirrors: The poem is alive—and this is a major point of the poem. The voice goes on to say that “you,” the reader, are being swallowed by the poem. The reader is advised to “go w/ this poem,” to “relax.” Finally, with the reader no longer being directly addressed as “you,” poem and reader become one.

Now, disconcertingly, the language changes again. In the last short section there is a flat, bureaucratic statement about the great numbers of people who disappeared without a trace in 1968. Yet at the end the flatness is transformed into a short, abrupt cry of feeling, almost a protest, about the loss felt by the friends of those who have disappeared.

Forms and Devices

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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...

(This entire section contains 426 words.)

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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.

In the first part, the run-on sentences do indeed tell the story, which emphasizes time, past, present, and, especially, future, an emphasis that is European American. The second part of the poem, however, is composed of lines that are complete sentences in themselves, even with the expected punctuation left out. There are no run-on lines until the final couplet, where the speaker asserts flatly that “this poem is the reader & the/ reader this poem.” This couplet, solidly closing the section, is also a summation of the series of statements above it. However, it also speaks of time as a now, something to be lived in, emphasizing life—a more African American approach.

Reed also rejects the standard grammatical forms and poetic formulas of the past, but he uses those forms for contrast. Like the American poet Ezra Pound, Reed is saying, “Make it new,” but to make it new one must show what one is rejecting. Reed himself has pointed out that his earliest poetry was influenced by poets such as William Butler Yeats; by implication, he is both using and refusing such influence here.


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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.

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

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