The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Transfer,” a poem of nine balladic quatrain stanzas rhyming abcb, employs the African American folk tradition that characterizes all the poetry of Sterling A. Brown. The poem is divided into two parts: Part I re-creates the event that caused a black man to be imprisoned, and part II narrates the circumstances and consequences of his escape from prison. More significantly, part II concludes with the hero’s folk wisdom concerning the directions and goals of the African American life.

The title of the poem alludes to the last stanza, in which the former convict realizes that he needs to “transfer” from one line of thought and direction in his life to another. He senses that the direction of his life heretofore has been the wrong one for black people to follow in the United States. The term “transfer” also literally refers to the transfer (a piece of paper) that one receives when changing from one bus line to another.

“Transfer” is written in the standard third-person point of view of the ballad form, and the poet acts as the narrator who relates to the reader the poignant story of the unnamed black convict. In the first four stanzas, the poet reveals the circumstances that lead the black man to the conclusions he reaches in the final stanza. The first stanza relates that in a fit of possible absentmindedness, the young man forgets to say “sir” to a white man during the “Jim Crow” era in the South. As a result...

(The entire section is 488 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Transfer” is a literary poem written in the style of the folk ballad. Sterling A. Brown was especially adept at and fond of adapting traditional folk forms such as the work song, folk song, ballad, and the blues in his poetry. These forms were especially expressive of the southern African American culture and ethos that Brown wished to evoke.

The poem consists of nine stanzas rhyming in the traditional ballad form of abcb. It is an adaptation of the traditional English ballad form, which is written in four-line stanzas with lines 1 and 3 having four beats and lines 2 and 4 rhyming, with three beats.

The traditional folk ballad tells an exciting story of the tragic and strange. Brown’s adaption in “Transfer” follows this tradition in both form and content. The poet purposely divides the poem into two distinct sections with Roman numerals I and II separating the time sequence. Part I tells how and why the hero is imprisoned, while part II tells the story of his escape and epiphany. The symbol of the hero’s spiritual revelation is a transfer comparable to the one used for transferring from one public transit line to another.

In order to relate the narrative and the poem to African American folk life and demonstrate the folk wisdom of the hero whose intelligence prevails despite his lack of formal education, the ballad uses the language of the common man. Words and phrases used to depict theme and setting...

(The entire section is 475 words.)