“Black Tambourine” is written in three stanzas, each a quatrain with end rhymes on the second and fourth lines. This poem, brief as it is, is like much of Hart Crane’s poetry: It carries suggestiveness to an extreme, never openly revealing its hand. The poem, though it appears to take a lyrical pleasure in measure and imagery, is told rather than spoken, allowing the reader to imagine that it may be a meditation rather than a lyric. The words seem to be said for their own sake. There is, in a sense, no definable speaker or audience.
The poem begins with the image of “a black man in a cellar.” The second line states, in language reminiscent of a newspaper editorial espousing racial equality, that the black man’s downtrodden living conditions “Mark tardy judgment on the world’s closed door.” The stanza concludes with starkly realistic images of gnats flying in a bottle’s shadow and a roach running across the floor.
The second stanza changes the scene so abruptly that the reader struggles to find a connection. The speaker tells about Aesop, the ancient Greek fabler whose moral tales involving animals may have delighted children but clearly pointed at adult behavior. Aesop is generally regarded as a legendary figure, but the most prominent of legends makes him a slave who earned his freedom, or at least a measure of human dignity, through his capacity to tell stories.
There is the hint of a connection here in a...
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