Portrait in Georgia
by Jean Toomer
Analysis: Form and Meter
Elegiac Blazon in Free Verse
Now there's a mouthful. Let's break this sucker down into its itty-bitty parts, starting with the easiest:
Free Verse. "Portrait in Georgia has no rhyme or meter. You know what that means, Shmoopers. It's in free verse. But that's not to say there aren't some patterns here. In fact, the poem reads a lot like a list. We get a woman's body part, followed by an em dash, followed by a poetic description of that body part, using terms that might as well describe a lynching victim, as in "Lips—old scars, or the first red blisters" (4). That pattern structures the poem, and keeps us tallying the images as we move from body part to body part. Which brings us to…
Blazon. In ye olden times, a blazon was an official description of a family's or knights coat of arms. But in poetry terms, it became something a little less grand—a catalogue of a woman's attractive attributes (read: body parts), and a list of metaphors that describe those attributes to the poet's satisfaction.
Only, here's the thing: usually those metaphors and descriptions are, you know, complimentary. Sure, poem's like Ol' Shakey's Sonnet 130 might play with the form a bit, but they're all, at the end of the day, love poems. And not to be Captain Obvious or anything, but "Portrait in Georgia" is clearly not a love poem. We mean, when's the last time you went all swoony over someone whose lips looked like blisters?
Elegy. That, friends, is where the elegy comes in. An elegy is a poem that bids adieu to a dead person. Normally, they're also poems of praise—and of mourning. But here? Not so much. Once again, Toomer is playing with form and turning it on its head (oh, those modernists, always playing with form). This poem isn't really mourning; it's just describing. We get image after image of this white-woman-as-lynching victim, without ever learning anything about this figure.
By combining two very different poetic traditions, Toomer's making us do a little bit of the meaning-making work ourselves. What kind of blazon talks about a corpse? And what kind of elegy talks about a beautiful woman who seems very much alive? Just as he's merging the image of a white woman with the image of a lynched black body, Toomer is merging two clashing poetic forms to show that the truth isn't always about distinctions. It's about the shocking ways in which things are exactly the same.