“Incident” by Countee Cullen (1903-1946) is, as I mentioned in class earlier this week, a “kick in the teeth.” If you demand energy from poetry, this poem generates tremendous energy from a single word. “Nigger” is the most lethal insult in America. Though our society is awash in the word, often in humorous or ironic contexts, it has never been OK to use it as it’s used in this poem. The little boy who uses the “N-word” is not joking. He’s not even being paternalistic in some bizarre sense where he can later claim “that’s just the word we used back then.” He sees a peer, a mirror image of himself in everything but color. And he very deliberately and pointedly uses the word to show that, as segregated society goes, he is the speaker’s superior.
(By the way, I’ll use the word “speaker” to stand for the “I” of any given poem. It’s preferable to “author” because the speaker might not always be the author. We don’t know that this ever happened to Countee Cullen, the human being; we know that he chose to create a dramatic poem where it happens to the “I” of the poem.)
So why is this great poetry and not just another autobiographical “incident”? The quality, for me, comes out of the balance between great rage and hurt in terms of content and great control and coolness in terms of form. A kid’s view of the world is shot through the heart by something he can’t ignore and can’t forget. Yet the poem presents this terrible incident in perfectly calm and controlled lines of traditional formal verse. The contrast couldn’t be greater: the poet has transformed rage into art.