And how does it sound? Jaunty and fun, we think. To use the poem's words, we think that the ballad form is inherently "Heart-filled, head-filled with glee" (2). Hear that jauntiness? Well, in the poetry biz that's called alliteration. The repetition of the H sounds at the front of "Heart-filled" and "head-filled" give off a playful vibe, as does the alliteration later in line 6 ("was" and "whit"). The effect is an upbeat form that sounds almost sing-songy. One of the great things about poems written in ballad meter is that you can actually sing them to the tune of the theme song for Gilligan's Island. If that ain't jaunty, we don't know what is.
But there's a real disconnect between what actually happens in the poem (a moment of revolting, racist speech) and its jaunty and light-hearted tone. This clash between form and content makes us all the more aware of the horribleness of the moment, because we, like the speaker, started off the poem in a ballad meter, with a happy-go-lucky feeling. The sounds in "Incident" play a big part in putting that initial spring in our step.
Finally, to experience this clash for yourself, check out this awesome rendition of the poem.
We at Shmoop think that "Incident" is a pretty apt title for the poem at hand. Just upon reading the title, we have tons of questions: What's the incident? Where does it happen? Who did it involve? Even more importantly, there's an ominous feeling inherent to the word "incident" that we don't find in more neutral terms like "occurrence" or "situation," or even "moment." By titling his poem "Incident," Cullen at once draws our interest and clues us in that we're going to be dealing with some pretty heavy stuff.
And, in case you're wondering about that "(For Eric Walrond)" that's chilling under the title, here's the skinny: Eric Walrond was a pal of Cullen's. Like Cullen, Walrond was a writer of the Harlem Renaissance. He was best known for writing the book Tropic Death, and he too was an activist for African Americans, which makes him a pretty suitable dedicatee for "Incident."
In "Incident," our older, African-American speaker remembers a haunting moment from his youth in which he experienced racism firsthand. And where does it all go down? The bus.
Now, racism and busses: is it possible these two subjects are making you wonder about Rosa Parks? Do you think the poem references her in some way? Sorry Shmoopsters, if you're thinking this, you're wrong; Rosa Parks staged her famous act of civil disobedience on a bus in 1955, 30 years after the publication of "Incident."
So the poem isn't referencing Rosa Parks, but it doesn't matter, because the setting of the bus is still potent. In the highly segregated cities, like the Baltimore of the 1920s, public transportation was one place in which people of different racial backgrounds were forced to come in contact with each other. (And there weren't necessarily a lot of places like this.) While it sounds like the perfect venue for different races to come together in harmony, that's sadly wishful thinking. The bus can be a site of racial conflict, as we see in the poem, and it often was. Just remember what happened to Rosa in 1955.
The speaker of "Incident" is an African-American man (at least, we're assuming that it's a man, based on Countee Cullen's use of the first person "I"). He is looking back on a moment in his youth. In a way, it's almost like we have two speakers in the poem. We have the current-day speaker, who recollects a moment from his childhood, and the speaker as an eight-year-old boy, who is living that moment.
We're not suggesting that our speaker has multiple personalities or anything like that, but we do think it's important that the speaker (as an adult) manages to convey the power of the racist incident that so defined his (young) life.
And let's not forget the way the speaker speaks: he's a straightforward dude who doesn't mince words. The poem is straightforward and direct; you won't find any fancy metaphors or over-the-top poetic diction here. Our speaker aims to speak clearly and directly in order to impress upon his readers the shock and outrage that he once felt. And that's exactly what he does.
"Incident" is a really easy poem to understand, which is very much the point. There's no doubt about what's going on (i.e., awful racism) and the poem can be understood by pretty much everyone—young and old, male and female, black and white and every color in between. The poem's straightforwardness and directness is what makes it so dang powerful.
Countee Cullen was all skilled up in English and American poetry. He studied literature at NYU and Harvard, and was a big admirer of poets like John Keats and A.E. Housman, both of whom wrote in traditional forms of poetry that had regular meters and rhyme schemes and all that good stuff.
But instead of writing about love, seasons, the moon, and all that good traditional-poetry content, Cullen used very traditional forms (like the ballad) to talk about very untraditional subject matter (like racism). This interesting mix of conventional form with current, political content is what Cullen is known for. Just check out examples like "A Brown Girl Dead" and "Heritage." And in "Incident" he used the form of poetry popularized by poets like Keats to talk about what it means to be black in America. He was an incredibly innovative guy, in our humble opinion.
"Incident" is written in a ballad form, which is an incredibly old form of poetry. It's also an incredibly popular one—you can find ballads written by folks like Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Dickinson all over your Norton Anthology (also, all over Shmoop!).
The first rule of ballad form is that you don't talk about ballad form. (Okay, sorry—bad joke.) The first rule of ballad form is actually that it has a ballad meter, which means that it alternates lines of iambic tetrameter (eight-syllable lines made up of iambs) with lines of iambic trimeter (six- syllable lines made up of iambs).
Ready for the plain ol' English version of that? It means that, when you hear it read out loud, the poem sounds like this:
daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM
daDUM daDUM daDUM
daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM
daDUM daDUM daDUM
Don't believe us? Here's what the first two lines of the poem sound like when you read them out loud.
Once riding in old Baltimore
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee
Now, there is a common variation that we find in ballad meter that Cullen takes advantage of when he writes "Incident." Check it out: sometimes he throws an extra syllable into the second and fourth lines of each stanza. For example, the lines "From May until December" and "That's all that I remember" each have 7 syllables (not 6). This is a pretty regular occurrence in ballads, so don't let it stress you out. Just calm down and breathe into this paper bag; we'll get through this.
The next rule of the ballad is that it rhymes—particularly, that the second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyme. (Sometimes the first and third lines don't rhyme, sometimes they do). So, in "Incident" we've got three pairs of rhyming words: "glee" and me," "bigger" and "nigger," and finally "December" and "remember," and the rhyme scheme looks like this: ABCB.
So why go so Old School with this form and meter? By writing "Incident" as a ballad, Cullen takes this very old form and updates it for the twentieth century by writing about contemporary topics like racism. In doing so, he both connects it with a long history of the ballad (we're lookin' at you Wordsworth) and with the concerns of his particular moment in history. He also seems to subtly connect the past, where racism was accepted as commonplace, with the speaker's present, where it's a shocking slap in the face. In this way, the poem is pointing out that ignorance and hatred may not be such relics of the past after all. Slam dunk, Countee.
The incident of "Incident" occurs when the speaker experiences a moment of hateful racism at the hands of another little boy—the "Baltimorean." We don't know anything about this fellow, except that a) he stares at the speaker, b) he sticks out his tongue at him, and c) he utters a racial epithet. We don't know anything about his life except for this. In this way, the young Baltimorean stands in for other prejudiced people, across Baltimore and across the nation. This moment is only the first in which the speaker, as an African American man, will have to face racism in his every day life. The Baltimorean (that little jerkface) becomes a symbol for prejudiced people everywhere.
When we read "Incident," we definitely feel the distance between who the speaker is at the present moment of the poem, and who he was at the time of the incident on the bus. There's a retrospective tone to the poem, and a large part of that is due to very small moments in which Cullen frames the poem with the diction of storytelling. This lends the poem an almost fable or fairytale-like air. The happy ending, though, is missing (sorry chicas and chicos).
"Incident" gets a G rating for sex, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily appropriate for the youngest among us. The poem's all about the use of R-rated language, so use your common sense when sharing this poem with the little ones.