Skip to main content

Knight approaches the potential usefulness of the distinctions between written and oral poetic forms from a different angle in his elegy "For Malcolm, A Year After." Here the rigidity of written forms is invoked as a facilitating written structure for a dangerously consuming oral expression.

The grieving speaker desires to "compose himself" by composing a "proper verse" for his slain leader. Rejecting an array of more immediate and improvised black vernacular forms (sermons, songs, blues, and spoken narratives), the speaker chooses to articulate his grief for Malcolm X through the rigid ("proper," "strict," "empty" "dead," "dry," and in the second stanza "prim") forms of Anglo-European culture because those forms will stabilize his expression, reducing it perhaps but also allowing it to endure. Ironically, of course, while the iambic tetrameter and the perfect abcb rhymes function to order and compose the speaker's expression, the cadenced repetitions of phrases and alliterative sounds work toward just the opposite effect, to suggest a welling up of feeling. In the end the poem does not achieve a dualistic control of black feelings with white forms but an eloquent expression of feelings through a variety of poetic resources that are not culturally specific. Thus, "compose" rings with three crucial meanings: to control, to make, and to express. Like Knight's haiku, this reciprocal, mutually informing and accommodating relationship between written and oral poetic forms and performances in the elegy provides a helpful model of African-American poetry, not simply because it dramatizes playful adaptation and rich potential but also because it registers the tensions and limitations of any dualistic model of culture.