In poetry, when critics speak of a motif, they mean a recurring image, subject, symbol, or detail that unifies a creative work. Readers at times confuse theme and motif, although the two can be distinguished easily if one remembers that the theme of an artistic work is not the same as the subject. That is, the theme is an abstract statement about the subject. A motif, on the other hand, is the device that a writer uses to develop his thematic concerns. In the case of ‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook,’’ Komunyakaa uses the motif of basketball. Readers can easily identify that this poem is, on the surface, about basketball. In addition, readers can bring to the poem everything that they know about basketball; for example, anyone who has watched a basketball game knows that it is a fast, powerful, highly competitive game in which players attempt to disguise their movements toward the basket. At the same time, basketball, while the ostensible subject of the poem, serves to help Komunyakaa develop and reinforce his thematic concerns of anger, grief, oppression, and power. The sensory details of the players’s movements as they dodge, feint, and shoot the ball unifies the poem and allows Komunyakaa to make concrete the abstract notion of injustice.
In 1877, English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins developed a poetic meter known as sprung rhythm. While he acknowledged himself as a practitioner of the form, he never credited himself as its inventor. Rather, he believed that the form not only reflected the cadences of spoken English, it also hearkened back to the earliest Old English verse and continued into the time of William Shakespeare. Contemporary critics also see sprung rhythm reemerging in the free verse forms of the modernists.
Typically in poetry, meter is discussed in terms of accented and unaccented syllables, organized into ‘‘feet,’’ or groups. For example, an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable is called an iamb. When there are five such feet in a line, it is called iambic pentameter, the meter used by Shakespeare in his sonnets and soliloquies, and John Milton in Paradise Lost. Regular meter requires feet that observe the organizational structure of the line; thus, iambic pentameter requires that each line have five unaccented syllables paired with five accented syllables. For example, the following is a sentence written in iambic pentameter: ‘‘The time has come for us to go away.’’
Hopkins, however, through sprung rhythm, breaks free of the jurisdiction of the line, spreading feet across the ends of lines into the next line. Quite simply, then, sprung rhythm utilizes irregular feet comprised of one accented syllable alone, or one accent syllable followed by an unspecified number of unaccented syllables (generally fewer than four, however).
In ‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook,’’ Komunyakaa adapts Hopkins’ sprung rhythm to his characteristically short lines, carrying feet from one line to the next. Each line has two or three accented syllables, followed by one to four unaccented syllables. The result is a poem that mimics the irregular, but marked, rhythms of jazz and the basketball court. The evidence that Komunyakaa intends to use sprung rhythm is manifold: first, in the strong stresses he places on individual syllables; second, in the way that he avoids the end stop and chooses instead to carry meaning and meter across lines; and third, by a direct reference in line 17, where he uses the term to describe the movement of the players’ appendages.
First-Person Plural Point of View
The narrator of a poem or story is the voice that ‘‘speaks’’ the poem or the story. The point of view describes the relationship of the narrator to the events he or she narrates. For example, a first-person narrator will use the pronoun ‘‘I’’ and tell the events of the poem from the limited perspective of a single person. A third-person narrator may not be identifiable as a character or a voice but rather seem to be the voice of the author, who knows all. Such a point of view is often referred to as third-person omniscient.
A less common point of view is the first-person plural, told from a collective ‘‘we’’ point of view. Readers may have experienced this point of view in the short story by Mississippi writer William Faulkner, ‘‘A Rose for Emily.’’ Like Faulkner, Komunyakaa chooses the first-person plural point of view for ‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook.’’ By so doing, he places the narrator within a community of shared values and beliefs. The narrator, in effect, becomes the representative voice of that community. In the case of ‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook,’’ the narrator is one of the group of basketball players. He shares their experiences, their frustrations, their fears, their joys, and their physical prowess.
At the same time, however, the narrator is also an observer of the community. The poem is written in past tense, a small vignette from the narrator’s past that has assumed significance in the years that followed. Thus, the narrator speaks to readers of the poem from a double consciousness: he is at once a basketball player, jumping for shots, and an older voice, probably of someone who has left the community, who recalls those hot summer days when trouble was just around the corner.
While the poems of Magic City are based on Komunyakaa’s memories of growing up in Bogalusa, Louisiana, it would be a mistake to necessarily identify the narrator with Komunyakaa himself. The basketball game he describes might have been one he participated in or not; there is no way to tell. However, it is possible for Komunyakaa to draw deeply from the shared sense of community and create a first-person plural narrator who can speak for the group, a narrator who can provide a voice for a people who were voiceless.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Yusef Komunyakaa, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009