The Poem

“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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Forms and Devices

In this poem, Crane works chiefly with two forms of poetic shorthand—metonymy and synecdoche. Synecdoche, the substituting of the part for the whole, is the easier of the two to define, and it is regarded by some as a special case of metonymy. An example of synecdoche is to use the word “sails” for “ship” or “ships.” Metonymy is more complex: offering someone a “mug” when the item being served is actually coffee is one example—the container is substituted for the contained. One might argue that everything in this poem is what it seems to be—and less, and more. “The world’s closed door,” for example, covers a multitude of socioeconomic injustices, but it is also a door keeping the black man in his cellar (at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder). Aesop is the fabler, but he also stands for the vision that sees through adversity to higher truths. The tambourine is a real instrument, but it is also the body of African American culture, that is, the beauty that African Americans managed to salvage from the detritus of the slave culture into which they were forced. The “carcass quick with flies” is a vivid image in concrete terms, but it also stands for what remains of black culture on its native soil as a consequence of the slavers’ rapine.

If the carcass is the body of the past, and the tambourine is a token of the slave mentality, which he can put aside but not escape, then Crane wants the reader to see the black man as someone who can neither return to his origin nor advance beyond the figurative cellar of the Europocentric culture into which he has been introduced.


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