If somebody were to ask you to describe this poem in one word, the best word of all would be "repetition." Even though a lot of your usual forms of poetic repetition (like rhyme) are absent from this poem, there's plenty of internal rhyme and alliteration to go around.
For example, the S sound is pops up in just about every possible nook and cranny imaginable. In the second stanza, for example, you can see it in "crashes," "ears," "pleads," "zinnias," "pursues," "corners," and then in the third stanza you see it in "strikes," "stick," and "breaks." Now these are certainly not the only instances of the S sound, but they do give you an idea of how pervasive it is.
Speaking of which, did you notice that the S sound here often appears in words that make us think of violence? Check out "crashes," "strikes," "breaks," "stick," and "struggle," just to name a few. You could almost say that the S is the sound of violence (not the sound of silence), and it is everywhere.
The repetition of these S sounds, along with all the other forms of sonic repetition (such as the internal rhyme of the long I sound in the third stanza), aren't simply here for decoration. No, no. While they make an extremely violent poem a little prettier, they also reinforce the poem's major theme: violence begets more violence, plain and simple. In the same way that a violent childhood means a violent adulthood, so too one S means more of the same. Sounds in this poem, like life events, repeat themselves.
"The Whipping": the title obviously describes what happens in the poem—a boy is savagely whipped and chased and cornered and beaten by some large, crazy woman. Keep in mind that we never learn what exactly the relationship between these two is, which makes things just a little strange. There's something about that word "the" that makes this poem seem scary, ominous, dangerous. Think of it like this: the Flood, the Deluge, the Apocalypse… the Whipping. It's not just scary and dangerous, but something that recalls the horrors of slavery in the American south. You can read more about that terrible time in history right here.
The other thing about a title like "The Whipping" is that we can't help thinking it describes something that has happened over and over and over, kind of like the sunrise, the sunset, the feeding, and so on. In short, with a title like "The Whipping," we think two things: this is something scary that definitely involves violence and punishment, and it's a violent encounter that has happened a whole lot of times. Well, that sounds like a charming subject for a poem now, doesn't it?
There's a lot of vegetation in this poem (trees, zinnias, elephant ears), but we're pretty sure "The Whipping" doesn't take place in a forest, even though it kind of seems like it sometimes. Actually, you could probably say the whole scene goes down in some metaphorical jungle. The woman is like a hunter pursuing her prey (the boy) through all kinds of bushes and plants. When she's done whipping him, she rests and licks her chops—well, sort of.
In reality, this poem takes place in some kind of house or apartment, but one that has lots of plants in it (zinnias, elephant ears, and a tree). Okay, it's possible that the poem takes place in the yard, and not in the house or apartment per se, but any way you slice it, it takes place somewhere where the speaker can see everything (we like to think of him as a neighbor).
While this apartment-house-yard-metaphorical forest is the primary setting of this poem, it is not the only setting. In the fourth and fifth stanzas, there is a little flashback-time travel episode. The setting of this violent memory also seems to be a house or apartment, and it too is incredibly violent. It isn't clear if the memory belongs to the speaker or the woman, but it is very unsettling nonetheless.
Ultimately, the most important thing about this poem is that there are two settings, and the poem jumps from one (the present) to the other (the past) and then back again. Strangely, both settings are incredibly violent and unpleasant. The past and the present, the whipping and the memory of the "bony vise," are almost the same thing. This makes sense in a poem that is all about how violence breeds more violence, and how history repeats itself.
A fly on the wall—that's the best way to describe the speaker of this poem. Okay, he's not literally a fly, but he's like a fly on the wall because he's watching this whipping unfold and, it seems, the woman and the boy have no idea that he's watching.
If we had to guess, we would say that the speaker lives near the woman and the boy, perhaps in an apartment across the way, from which he can see everything that happens. He obviously is familiar with the vegetation in the other place (he describes elephant ears and zinnias) and knows which room belongs to the boy.
More than just a nearby, casual observer, fly-on-the-wall-type dude, the speaker of "The Whipping" has a knack for psychology, and definitely understands how the cycle of violence and abuse works. In the last stanza, for example, the speaker suggests that the woman whips the boy because of the pain, suffering, and abuse she endured in her past—she is "avenged in part for lifelong hidings." She beats the boy as a way to cope with her own pain, to "purge" or eliminate it from her life. In fact, this guy is so good, he can practically read the woman's mind. Just look at that bizarre little stream of consciousness interlude in stanzas four and five, where a series of painful, violent memories are vividly described. Yep, it sure sounds like he could give our boy Sigmund Freud a run for his money.
Now, there's one last little thing we need to cover. We've been talking about how the speaker understands violence and might as well be a therapist. Those fourth and fifth stanzas are a little confusing, and it's possible that the memories vividly described there are the speaker's own recollections. He too could be a victim of abuse, and perhaps the scene he watches unfold reminds him of his own violent childhood. Perhaps this is why he understands the cycle of violence and abuse so well (just sayin').
"The Whipping" really isn't too difficult of a poem, even though some of Hayden's work can be a little confusing. It's a pretty straightforward story (a woman whips a boy, chases him around, breaks the stick she whips him with, she rests, he cries), if a little disturbing. There's nothing crazy as far as word choice goes (except for maybe those plant references), and the sentence structure is forgiving.
The one little hiccup occurs in the middle of the poem, with that bizarre memory recall moment. It's confusing because it almost comes out of nowhere, and it's not clear just exactly whose memory it is. Then again, the confusion is in keeping with the poem's emphasis on the chaos it describes and, pretty easily, you can choose to interpret this in one of just a few directions. So don't worry, folks. You've got this.
It seems like every poem we've come across talks about pain, suffering, trauma, and a whole lot of other unpleasant stuff. "The Whipping," as we've seen, is full of violence, tears, and painful memories. In another famous poem called "Frederick Douglas" (about the famous activist), Hayden talks about Douglass as "beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world / where none is lonely," while in "Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday" he describes a woman's suicide. In what might be his most well-known piece, "Those Winter Sundays", Hayden alludes to scary, and painful childhood memories much like he does in "The Whipping": "slowly I would rise and dress, / Fearing the chronic angers of that house." Pain, suffering, trauma—this stuff is all over Hayden's poetry, and with good reason. Check out "In a Nutshell" to see why.
"The Whipping" doesn't have any specific meter like iambic pentameter or trochaic hexameter (yeah, we can't think of any poems that have that last meter, btw). Since it doesn't have any specific meter, it is an example of free verse.
Just to prove to you that it doesn't have any regular meter, let's take a peek at a few different lines. Here's line 2:
is whipping the boy again.
This line is pretty much in iambic trimeter, which means it should contain three (tri- means three) iambs. But if you look closely, you'll notice that there are actually only two iambs, and something else in the middle. That something else is called an anapest, which is two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. In this case, that's the "-ing the boy" part.
As another example, take line 20:
and the boy sobs in his room.
This line begins with an anapest ("and the"), and concludes with two iambs ("sobs in his room") (it too is a line of trimeter). There's no real common pattern here, and we double-dog dare you to find one anywhere in this poem. Rhythmically, it's just not there.
Now, in addition to having no fixed metrical scheme, "The Whipping" also has no real rhyme scheme either. Okay, technically speaking, it has no end rhymes that we can see (unless there's some funky way of pronouncing the words that we're not familiar with). Just because there's no end rhyme, however, doesn't mean that there isn't any rhyme at all.
So, what other kinds of rhymes are there? Well, a lot of times free verse poems utilize something called internal rhyme, where words within the same line "rhyme" or somehow echo each other. In the first stanza, for example, that short O sound in "woman" is repeated in "neighborhood" and "goodness," while in the second stanza the long I sound pops up all over the place ("wildly," "while," and "spite"). If you wanna get super-duper-technical, you could say that these internal rhymes we've talked about are examples of assonance. Bust that word out at your next party and see it how goes, Shmoopers.
We know what you're thinking. What's the point of this free verse style, this "no rhyme scheme and no meter" deal? Even though Robert Frost once said that writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down, it does have a purpose. For one, it gives the poet a little more freedom. Think about it like this: what if you came up with an awesome line for this poem you're writing but somehow can't figure out how to make it fit the meter you've chose? Yeah, that would be really annoying, wouldn't it?
With "The Whipping," there's a little more to the story. The poem is almost like a snapshot, a record of the speaker's thoughts as he watches a violent scene unfold in front of him. We know that most people don't actually think in iambic pentameter, or trochaic tetrameter, right? (Okay, maybe Shakespeare did, but that doesn't count.) The absence of any strict formal rules (a defined rhyme scheme and a regular meter), then, makes this poem seem more like a real observation that somebody would make.
Moreover, towards the latter half of the poem, the speaker goes into a sort of stream of consciousness deal where he attempts to describe somebody's memories (either his own or the woman's, it's not clear). Free verse is the perfect type of verse to use in a poem that is exploring the human mind and its highly irregular (and free) succession of thoughts. It's a pretty slick choice there, Mr. Hayden, if we do say so ourselves.
This is a violent poem, no doubt about it. The woman whips the boy so hard that the stick she uses breaks. In fact, she's so set on whipping this poor little kid, she chases him all over the place and ignores his pleadings. On top of this, there's a violent memory nestled in the middle of the poem that involves somebody's head (the speaker's or the woman's) stuck between somebody's knees while it gets beaten. Violence in the present, violence in the past makes for some sad times, gang. Saddest of all is that there's a chance there will be violence in these people's future, too.
Zinnias, elephant ears, sticks, and trees—these are all forms of vegetation. While they are here partly as decoration (they are details that make the poem seem like an accurate description of an actual place), each one also represents something different in its way. The tree in the final stanza, for example, serves as a crutch for the woman and reminds us that in many ways she cannot stand on our own (she is still haunted by her past). The tree also reminds us of the stick the woman uses to whip the boy and is thus also a reminder of the violence in the poem. And you thought all these bushes were just hanging around for no reason.
This is a very noisy poem, from the woman shouting in the first stanza so loud that the entire neighborhood can hear, to the boy crashing through bushes and plants as he tries to escape the woman's wrath. The noise in this poem works to make the violent scene described seem more chaotic, crazy, and scary. In some ways, the woman is like an angry, frothing predator chasing a boy who is her whimpering, screaming prey. "The Whipping" isn't just some depiction of a mother or baby sitter disciplining a child, but rather a depiction of domestic warfare.
"The Whipping" is a poem about punishment and violence, and it has nothing to do with sex. That would just be weird in a poem like this.