Gwendolyn Brooks in her poem, "Boy Breaking Glass"
, rips through the surrounding context of a young boy throwing stones through windows and superimposes a diagram of cultural cause and effect. Instead of simply writing about the action and the immediate consequences of the seemingly simple action, she analyzes the web of cultural motivations that keep the boy from doing anything other than breaking glass. The figure observed in her poem is no lawless vandal, shattering glass simply for the sake of easing an itching arm.
“I shall create! If not a note, a hole.
If not an overture, a desecration.”
Out of the desire to create a lasting meaning, the boy reacts in a violent, virtuosic manner, shattering glass to hear the sound of his suppression physically shattering. Breaking glass in this poem is a gateway image, leading the poet and the audience through a winding montage of cultural motivation, repression, the systemic racism ingrained within American education and judicial systems. The poem attacks popular conventions and interpretations of a boy breaking glass, predominantly construed as idle vandalism or even a racist, inherent violence.
Brooks instead turns the image to reflect itself, a reaction against a society overwhelmingly in favor of the figure's suppression. Breaking glass becomes a coping mechanism, a way of dealing and circumventing frustration on an individual level, and a manner of expressing discontent on a cultural one.
The poem then dives into a listing of objects, one we can understand as belonging to the set of objects common to or representative of a privileged class.
"Who has not Congress, lobster, love, luau,
the Regency Room, the Statue of Liberty,
runs. A sloppy amalgamation.
A hymn, a snare, and an exceeding sun."
The concluding stanza begins its resolution at "runs". Brooks is describing with this word how all who are excluded from this narrow category of privilege must make their escape, often failing to do so, extending the metaphor of vandalism by describing how those accused of damaging property are forced to run away from the very things that have contributed to their need for coping. The injustice and contradiction of this political circumstance becomes a list of associative imagery: first, "a sloppy amalgamation" the complex situation and catch-22, then "a mistake" the individual being targeted, "a cliff" describing the inescapable system, finally "a hymn, a snare, and an exceeding sun."
If you are wondering why these last images, I interpret them as being Brooks' solution to this silence. A hymn is a cornerstone to African-American culture, manifesting the desire to escape from persecution, expressing the transcendence of the soul in the eyes of God, and a foundational artform that prefigures blues and jazz. The snare is a type of drum. Percussion instruments have long been a staying implement in African music and has migrated over into African-American expressions as well. The exceeding sun is an image of transcendence, like the hymn. It concludes the otherwise dark and contrarian poem with an image of hope being "exceeding" as if more than enough. The image of breaking glass is overlaid upon this sun, linking political protest with hope for the future.
All this is accomplished with a basic technique of poetry: Chaining imagery. To use a metaphor I am more familiar with, images are like hits in a combo. As the poet, the most effective way of executing a poem is to repeatedly use varying images that link with each other in consecutive and fluid reactions. Brooks has related objects and images from music and culture to political upper and lower-class landscapes. The effect she produces is similar to an experienced, level 100, elemental mage laying the smackdown on a horde of assorted orcs, skeleton minions, and demonic lords. Where Brooks produces a palpable and immediate reaction in her audience, the elemental mage has just gained over 10k's worth of experience in less than eight minutes. Both Brooks and the mage have to be ruthlessly efficient, precise, and tactical to be effective.
Anyone who's done in-depth analysis of really good poetry or has simply played an action RPG with a high level cap knows how much work both these things require. As a tool, associative imagery is essential in the modern writer's repertoire. It differentiates itself from regular imagery in that it's used to convey secondary meanings through passage of association. Which is another way of saying the mental connections between the objects in the set of imagery that we are labelling as associative are what really drives the impact or meaning. The pattern or relationship is what's important here. Congress, lobster, love, luau, the Regency Room, the Statue of Liberty. Each of these things is a symbol of authority, whiteness, or privilege.
So how does one acquire the ability to utilize association and imagery to this extent? For me, I spent most of my time reading other poems, doing exactly what I've done here, peering into the anatomy of the text and seeing what stitches or ligaments have been made. Analyzing poetry or prose is about finding connections.
In application, association in imagery is endlessly useful. In my own writing, I once wrote about a conversation between my father and I as we were heading home from a taco restaurant.
The words of Spanishbienividas taqueria es Karina’s
enter past, follow after
my father’s ground-up English
medicinal as herbs, bitter
and a little awkward for him to swallow.
On our way home, on the car ride
heavy and fast with the sun going down
faster than we are. His speech was never
as smooth as his driving. Mixed
signals, a slowness,
stop-n-go’s and a rhythm
without rhythm, laughable, funny
to my American-
standard ears. Caramelo
Words as thick
Immediately, the alienity of another language and the description of speech produces a halting effect. The reader is forced to read a little more carefully, trying to get a sense of what is being talked about and how the figures are doing so. Notice in the first stanza the phrase "ground-up English". I've used the words "ground-up" as a seed, or a word that you focus on to connect with other concepts or images in order to produce a connected effect. My train of thought was as follows: ground-up, like a mortar and pestle, Chinese medicine and herbs, medicinal, herbal, bitter, hard to swallow, tastes like ash, a bitter pill to swallow, like having to put up with awkward conversations, dad's a bit of a pill.
Sometimes allowing yourself to free associate like this will give you more material than you need. My biggest problem then becomes deciding what to use and what to cut. I usually don't think too hard. I free-write stanzas and break the lines where it feels natural and generally pay more attention to the progression of language as well as the depth of the content. Some people aren't able to freely do this as it requires a good deal of focus or patience. One should use whatever method is available to them and write in a way that's comfortable. For me, free association is useful for pushing out stanzas and when all connectives have been exhausted, that's when things go up the chopping board.
For now though, for the purposes of this journal, I'm sticking to examples of imagery and association. Editing is something I've yet to master. Part two will cover Diane Wakoski, Sylvia Plath, and connotations in imagery, as well as sonic transformation. Part three will move on to prose.