Although ‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook’’ appears to be a poem about a group of young men playing basketball, it is also a poem about power, both physical and cultural power. The young men described in this poem are at the peak of their physical prowess. The narrator describes difficult maneuvers that the young men accomplish easily. Indeed, they seem to exist on some higher plane than the rest of humanity in this poem, accomplishing remarkable feats of physical grace while shooting hoops. Their strength is in their muscles, sinews, and bones.
Cultural power in this poem is not named but referenced obliquely. In line 29, Komunyakaa inserts the image of someone wielding a hand weapon. The weapon Komunyakaa refers to, sometimes called a truncheon, nightstick, or slap, is a rubber baton with a handle grip, weighted at one end. This weapon is often used by police to break up fights, riots, or other incidents in which they do not use guns. (In a particularly gruesome and difficult example, contemporary readers might recall the 1991 images of Rodney King, an African American man, being beaten with batons by four members of the Los Angeles Police Department. The beating was caught on videotape by a bystander.) The choice of the baton as a weapon is particularly potent, within the context of the poem. During the 1950s and early 1960s, young black men were routinely harassed by white policeman wielding batons or nightsticks. The baton itself became a symbol of police brutality and misuse of power. In ‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook,’’ therefore, the image of a policeman watching the basketball game, smacking one hand with a baton held in another hand, is a reminder of the unequal balance of power between the races. It also serves to suggest that the white power structures fear the grace and physical prowess of the African American youth playing basketball.
The final lines of the poem allude to yet another manifestation of power. The young men playing basketball are not merely physically powerful, they are also beginning to understand the importance of teamwork to achieve goals other than baskets. Just as in basketball they use strength and strategy to win the game, the coming fight for civil rights in the United States for all people will require courage, strength, wit, subterfuge, and strategy. The white establishment in this poem is right to consider the young men deadly; their anger over their ongoing mistreatment and oppression, percolating under the surface, will soon erupt in protests and riots across the nation. Komunyakaa, writing in 1991, has the wisdom of hindsight to impart to ‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook.’’ He knows what the near future will hold for these young men. Thus, the expression of the last line of ‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook,’’ asserting that the players are not only lovely to behold but also powerfully intent on achieving their goals and powerfully poised to overthrow their oppressors, rings as a prophecy.
Grief and Anger
In lines 24 through 26, Komunyakaa inserts the image of a young black man called Sonny Boy who has just lost his mother. Sonny Boy’s response to his mother’s death is to play basketball continuously. His play is so hard and pounding that his shots end up shattering the wooden board behind the net. Although this image extends for only two short lines, it is a striking expression of both grief and anger. As a young black man in the 1950s South, Sonny Boy is rendered powerless by legal and social strictures of the day. His outlet is the basketball court, where, in the fast-paced movement of feet, hands, muscle, and sinew, he finds a language to express his rage and his grief.
These brief lines also serve to demonstrate the way Komunyakaa evokes strong emotion in his poems without ever naming the emotion or referring to it directly. It is left up to the reader to connect the force of Sonny Boy’s play with the emotional force that drives him, and it is up to the reader to name just what that emotion is. Indeed, by leaving so much unspoken in ‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook,’’ Komunyakaa encourages the reader to feel the grief and anger inside his or her muscles and bones, not merely read the words on the page.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Yusef Komunyakaa, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009