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 . . . Read More
‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook’’ is a poem of forty short, unrhymed lines. The poem is overtly about a group of young African American men playing basketball in the Deep South during the 1950s or 1960s. The narrator is a member of the group and includes himself in the descriptions.
The poem opens with two two-word phrases describing basketball moves, before quickly moving to a classical allusion to the Roman god Mercury. Mercury (called Hermes by the Greeks) was the messenger of the gods and was known for his swiftness. He wore wings on his shoes, designating speed. The word mercurial comes from Mercury and signifies quick, unpredictable, and changing movement. Thus, when Komunyakaa refers to the young men wearing Mercury’s symbol on their shoes, he is suggesting that the players move quickly and unexpectedly. In addition, because of the wings on their feet, they are able to outwit and outmove evil people who would trip . . . Read More
In 1980, Robert Bly, a leading American poet, compiled an unusual poetry anthology titled News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness. It is a substantial book comprising over one hundred and fifty poems, ranging from the eighteenth century to the present day and over a number of different cultural traditions. One of the poems Bly selected was Wendell Berry’s ‘‘The Peace of Wild Things.’’ The premise of the anthology is that there had been a development in poetry over the previous two hundred years that reflected a profound change in how people viewed nature and their relationship to it. In what Bly calls the ‘‘Old Position,’’ which was well established in European culture in the eighteenth century, human reason was held to be the highest quality, and humans believed that because they possessed reason and nature did not, they were therefore superior to everything else in nature. They were of the view that ‘‘nature is defective because it lacks . . . Read More
Social Upheaval and War in the 1960s
It is not difficult to understand why someone writing in the late 1960s might express despair about the state of the world. For Americans, this period was fraught with social upheaval and the horror of war. In April 1968, the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had been campaigning on behalf of striking sanitation workers. In June of the same year, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles after winning the California primary for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. In Vietnam, the Viet Cong, the forces of the communist North Vietnamese, launched the Tet Offensive in February 1968, attacking the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon, and other South Vietnamese cities. Although the Viet Cong suffered heavy casualties, the Tet Offensive showed that the United States, despite having nearly half a million troops in Vietnam, was not even . . . Read More
An allusion in a work of literature is a reference to another literary work. It can be a reference to a person, an event, or simply a phrase that occurs in another work. When the poet writes in line 8 about his awareness of the body of water that is nearby, he uses words that echo a well-known phrase in the Bible, from Psalm 23: ‘‘He leads me beside still waters.’’ The pronoun ‘‘he’’ refers to God. The psalm presents God as a shepherd who ‘‘makes me lie down in green pastures,’’ which is echoed in ‘‘The Peace of Wild Things,’’ as the poet also lies down in nature. Allusions may simply give a wider frame of reference to the work in which they occur, or they may serve a more complex, ironic function, serving to contrast or otherwise distinguish between the way the common words or phrases are used in the two works. In ‘‘The Peace of Wild Things,’’ although the Biblical allusion in the poem is clear, . . . Read More
The Human World versus the Natural World
The poem contrasts the turbulence of the human world, and the workings of the human mind, with the peace of the natural world. Human life is chaotic and dangerous. People are unable to live at peace with one another, and the news always seems to be bad. The poem was published in 1968 when the Vietnam conflict was at its height, and in the United States, Senator Robert Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated. It is perhaps not surprising that someone writing during those turbulent times should sink into despair regarding the human condition. The poet cannot separate himself from the larger fate of the world, which he fears may eventually touch him and his children personally. It is notable that he seems most worried about something that has not yet happened but may happen in the future, and this is why he cannot sleep at night, or is frequently awakened and immediately starts to . . . Read More
‘‘The Peace of Wild Things’’ begins with the poet, writing in first person, describing what he likes to do when his mind becomes agitated and he needs to calm down. He presents himself as a man who is concerned about the state of the world. He appears to have no hope that the condition of the world will improve, although he offers no details about his worries. Perhaps he has in mind war, poverty, and injustice, all the things that plague humanity and seem to continue despite the best efforts of well-intentioned people to end them. In line 2, the poet makes it clear how deep this worry in his mind is, since he will wake up at night if there is even the slightest of sounds and the worry will start again. In line 3 it becomes apparent that he fears for the future, not only for himself but also for his children. Perhaps he harbors the fear that there may be some cataclysm or other devastating event that would radically change human . . . Read More
The poem ‘‘Oranges’’ by Gary Soto is frequently included in anthologies of literature as a sole example of Soto’s writing. Readers praise it, finding it to be pleasant and unchallenging. The assumption that this poem is about a charming courtship between innocent children may be touching, but it does not really respond to the facts given in the poem. ‘‘Oranges’’ does reaffirm the basic goodness of life, but its view of young love finding its way is anything but sweet.
The poem tells readers nothing about its narrator at the start except that he is telling about a time when he was twelve years old. In the story, the boy goes to a girl’s house one December morning to walk with her. The fact that it is just a walk with her, nothing more, is quaint enough without it being something he has never had a chance to do before, and readers are naturally inclined to root for the innocent, nonthreatening child. Though it may be his first romantic experience, the . . . Read More
Mexican Immigration in California
Soto’s poetry is often autobiographical, as is the case with ‘‘Oranges.’’ Soto was twelve—the age of the boy in this poem—in 1964. He grew up in a Mexican American family in Fresno, California, a city that drew many Mexican immigrants who came to the United States looking for jobs in the agricultural fields of the surrounding San Joaquin Valley. Field work has always been difficult physical labor, often involving stooping to the ground to harvest low-growing fruits and vegetables such as lettuce, artichoke, or strawberries. It is the physical labor involved in harvesting produce in the sun that has traditionally made the work unappealing for Americans who are able to find jobs that offer more money for less work. Workers from Mexico, which has had a more subdued economy, have crossed over to the United States for decades into border states like California, Texas, and New Mexico, to accept salaries . . . Read More
Narrative Verse and Free Verse
‘‘Oranges’’ is an example of a narrative poem, or one that tells a story. Narrative verse is traditionally considered to be one of the four basic literary modes of poetry, along with lyric, dramatic, and didactic poetry. Narrative poems include the oldest poems known to history: epics such as the Iliad of Homer (circa eighth or ninth century BCE) and the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, which is dated to the seventh century BCE. Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century story The Canterbury Tales is a collection of interrelated narrative poems tied together to make one overall story. Many older narrative poems are believed to be stories that were passed from one person to another, from generation to generation for hundreds of years before finally being written down.
As with most narratives, Soto’s poem is more concerned with the story that it is telling than with using a particular poetic style . . . Read More