Poetry Analysis: Incident By Countee Cullen

Probably the most underrated African American poet of his time, Countee Cullen is a really rebellious protester themed writer who is everything about securing the rights and self-respect of black individuals and utilizes that extremely passion to fuel his poetry. In the poem “Occurrence”, Cullen uses a mixture of rhetorical devices which he incorporates into his ironic balanced syntax to help stress to readers the effect of bigotry had on children living in the early -mid 1900’s, a huge time of racism.

Written in 1925, Cullen used this poem as a way for him to vent his feelings and frustration and inform the ignorant all at the exact same time. The poem speaks about a young African American young boy who is excited that he is going to Baltimore and while there he discovers another young kid that is his same age and size however he is white and after that the young boy is surprised by a powerful and unrefined racial slur.

The poem is not as head as Cullen makes it seems, it is actually a paradoxical poem. The first tip of paradox is discovered early in the poem “Now I 8 and very small/And he was no whit larger” (5-6). A reader would believe that the racist bullying would come from someone bigger than the kid in the poem when in all actuality it was from someone his own size, and that’s precisely what Cullen is attempting to reveal, that bigotry came from all ages and happened in between all spectrums of ages, a teen and an adult, an adult and a kid, anybody.

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paradox does not stop there, you see another look of it in the last verse, “And he was no whit larger”( 6 ). In the poem wit is spelled W.H.I.T however, the correct spelling of wit is W.I.T and this is no spelling mistake, this is actually a small pun Cullen uses to assist stress his racial theme. It’s as if Cullen takes the “E” off of white and if it’s returned it’s “No white-bigger”. Cullen utilized this play on words to reveal the psychological deceptiveness that was used by white people used to make themselves appear intellectually superior. Not just is the content of this poem unique, but so is the structure. In the first verse the syllables of each line alternate 8 and 6, then for the remainder of the poem alternates 8 and 7. This unique syllable structure gives the poem a rhythmic under tone of joy, which in turn when it mixed with the content and theme of racism brings out more of the poem’s irony which is one of the main style focuses of this poem.

Cullen’s inspirations of his life and passions are definitely evident in this poem. First off the location of the poem was set in Baltimore, MD and although much of Cullen’s early biographical information is shady and unclear, Baltimore has said to be one of Cullen’s possible birth places which is hinted in the poem, “Once riding in old Baltimore”(1). Another key connection is that Cullen lived in a time period where racism and segregation was a very popular idea so an incident such as the one in the poem occurring to Cullen is a very strong possibility.

Cullen’s unique writing stlye and complex syntax that is shown in his poem Incident is what made him one of the best writers of his time, and although the topic of the poem is still a touchy subject for most Incident is a poem that has been and will be a poem worth reading for centuries.

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