The Poem

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Last Updated on May 18, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 488

“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.

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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 of his negligence, he is beaten with a crank by the motorman and clubbed by the conductor. Nevertheless, he survives and is sentenced to four years on the prison farm by a supposedly “merciful” judge for “bruising white knuckles” and inciting a riot on the Atlanta Peachtree line. In the third stanza, the poet states that the hero has been beaten so severely that his jawbone is displaced; he is deemed harmless and made a prison farm “trusty.”

The second part of the poem begins with the fifth stanza. The hero mounts a horse and flees from prison to Atlanta, where he is taken in by the “folks” and fed, clothed, and hidden. He comes out only at night in the black neighborhood, because all the white policeman disappear from that part of town after dusk. The seventh stanza reveals that he begins preaching at the car stop. The eight and ninth stanzas relate the basic theme of the sermon he always preaches: The convict had thought that if he stayed in “his place” (followed all the laws of segregation and Jim Crow), he would be allowed to live in peace with his white overlords; now, however, he has come to the conclusion that he was on the wrong “line” (referring to bus line), and that he needs to change directions because African Americans can no longer obey the old laws that afford them neither safety nor freedom.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 18, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 475

“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 appropriately express implicit and explicit folk meanings; terms such as “daft with the heat,” “brained with his crank,” “skittish,” “Darktown,” “daffy,” and “figgered” are used throughout the poem. In addition, words that refer to transportation abound in the text. The poem begins at a bus line. The hero escapes from prison after becoming a trusty by simply riding away on a mare, and his final sermon takes place at the car-stop.

The last two stanzas of the poem further demonstrate Brown’s skillful use of the nuances of folk speech as a poetic device. He closes the stanzas with a proverb; “I stayed in my place, and my place stayed wid me.” The poem employs narrative devices characteristic of the ballad form. When the poet attempts to render the essence of the hero’s actual sermon at the car stop, however, Brown uses dialectal spellings such as “doan,” “wid,” “git,” “stan,” and “ma” to imitate folk speech.

“Transfer” exhibits Brown’s superlative gift for adapting traditional forms to African American folk material as well as his genius in the creative use of language. “Transfer” stands out as an example of Brown’s characteristic ability to transcend folk material and language to express universal truths about injustice and human suffering. In addition, the poem explains African Americans’ ability to survive in a hostile universe while retaining and manifesting keen folk wisdom and intelligence.

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