The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Purpose of Altar Boys” is composed in free verse. Its forty-five lines are held together in a single stanza. The title appears to be straightforward and serious, preparing the reader for an account of the function of altar boys in the Catholic church. Alberto Ríos, however, looking back from the point of view of adulthood, assumes the voice of a mischievous altar boy who has created innovations in the performance of his duties when he assists the priest during the sacrament of Communion. As the poem progresses, the word “purpose” of the title takes on the meaning of intention.

The altar boy begins by explaining the way in which the human eye is constructed for perceiving good and evil. He says he learned this from his friend Tonio at catechism, where the boys were being taught the principles of their religion. Tonio learned about the eye from his mother. The altar boy explains that “the big part” of the eye “admits good” and the “little/ black part” is for “seeing evil.” He believed this because Tonio’s mother was a widow and, consequently, an “authority” on such things. Because the dark part of the eye sees evil, the altar boy associates evil with darkness. He explains that this is why children cannot go out at night and why girls sometimes undress at night and walk around their rooms or stand in their windows with nothing on but their sandals.

The narrator claims that he was the altar boy who “knew about...

(The entire section is 491 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In “The Purpose of Altar Boys,” Ríos adopts the persona of a young boy, whose essential innocence attracts the reader and contributes to the humor of the poem. This persona affects the poem’s language and structure. The diction is simple and colloquial, as exemplified in “kids can’t go out” and in the boy’s references to the iris as the “big” part and to the pupil as the “little” part of the eye. This voice also accounts for the absence of such literary devices as simile, metaphor, and rhyme. These would give the poem a self-consciousness that the altar boy does not have. He narrates his story in a linear structure and without the interruptions of stanza breaks, as his mind moves quickly from thought to thought, image to image.

The sense of ease and speed in the narration is also facilitated by the poet’s use of a relatively short poetic line, usually containing six or seven syllables. Although the lines are short, the sentences are long. Five of them take up six or more lines, and one of these extends through twelve lines. The other three sentences in the poem take up one, two, and three lines, respectively. The combination of short lines and long sentences creates a sense not only of speed but also of breathlessness—these features express the altar boy’s excitement as he tells his story of good and evil, judgment and temptation.

His excitement is also conveyed by repetition. Fascinated by darkness, he repeats...

(The entire section is 525 words.)