The poem uses interesting examples of language. Some of which readers may find complicated and hard to understand. But, as with most poems, this one benefits from more than one reading. ‘Atlantic City Waiter’ is filled with images that are more than worth uncovering and understanding.
Atlantic City Waiter Countee Cullen With subtle poise he grips his tray Of delicate things to eat; Choice viands to their mouths half way, The ladies watch his feet Go carving dexterous avenues Through sly intricacies; Ten thousand years on jungle clues Alone shaped feet like these. For him to be humble who is proud Needs colder artifice; Though half his pride is disavowed, In vain the sacrifice. Sheer through his acquiescent mask Of bland gentility, The jungle flames like a copper cask Set where the sun strikes free.
Explore Atlantic City Waiter
‘Atlantic City Waiter’ by Countee Cullen is a thoughtful poem about a waiter’s experience working in Atlantic City and his history.
The poem begins by describing the way a waiter moves. He’s observed, like a majestic animal, by the men and women in the restaurant. But, he maintains a cold exterior. Underneath that is a broad and proud history that could only come from thousands of years of influence from the jungle.
Structure and Form
‘Atlantic City Waiter’ by Countee Cullen is a sixteen-line poem that follows a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGHGH. This simple and effective rhymes scheme helps create a standard rhythm for the poem. It also helps the reader move steadily through the lines. The meter alternates between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. This means that the lines either have four sets of two beats or three sets of two beats.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two as well as lines five and six.
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “him” and “humble” in line nine and “copper cask” in line fifteen.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses especially interesting and memorable descriptions. For example, “With subtle poise he grips his tray / Of delicate things to eat.”
With subtle poise he grips his tray
Of delicate things to eat;
Choice viands to their mouths half way,
The ladies watch his feet
Go carving dexterous avenues
Through sly intricacies;
In the first lines of ‘Atlantic City Waiter,’ the speaker begins by bringing the reader directly into the action of the poem. This is a technique known as in medias res. It’s up to the reader to interpret context clues and figure out the details of the situation. The speaker refers to “he,” clearly the waiter referenced in the title.
This person is carrying a tray of delicious food. The poet uses the unusual word “viands” to describe it. This is an archaic way of referring to an item of food. As he works, the women in the restaurant watch him. The poet uses a metaphor to describe his movements. He walks between the tables and chairs as though “carving dexterous avenues.” Already, readers should have a good image of this man in their mind.
Ten thousand years on jungle clues
Alone shaped feet like these.
For him to be humble who is proud
Needs colder artifice;
Though half his pride is disavowed,
In vain the sacrifice.
Sheer through his acquiescent mask
Of bland gentility,
The jungle flames like a copper cask
Set where the sun strikes free.
In the following lines, the speaker expands away from the specific image of the waiter to discuss his history. He suggests that years of the shaping in the “jungle” created this man. He’s “humble” but needs to maintain a “colder artifice” as he goes about his work. He’s observed, like a creature, by the patrons of the restaurant.
It’s clear that although the man is working a simple job, Cullen’s speaker can see much more than that under the surface. His pride is there, seen through his movements, as are hints of his history.
The tone is descriptive and reverential. The speaker spends the lines celebrating the waiter’s strength and pride. The speaker emphasizes the man’s history and the way he has to carry himself today.
The purpose is to explore the waiter’s life and history and relate his experience to the broader experience of African American men and women throughout society. They are forced to put on a certain appearance and continually have their proud histories pushed down.
The themes at work in this poem include racial injustice and history. The poet acknowledges these themes through his thoughtful and powerful use of language. He alludes to how the man carries himself and his history, allowing the reader to connect this specific person to broader societal issues.
The speaker is familiar with Atlantic City. Cullen himself septa time working there, something that might suggest that he saw himself as the speaker in this poem as well as the waiter.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Atlantic City Waiter’ should also consider reading some other Countee Cullen poems. For example:
- ‘Any Human to Another’ – the speaker describes how essential human interaction is. He also reveals how one person suffering affects everyone.
- ‘From the Dark Tower’ – a thoughtful poem about the Black experience. It suggests that there is a brighter future on the horizon.
- ‘Hey, Black Child’ – a moving and memorable poem that is directed to and dedicated to all the black children who have been taught by the world that their lives can’t amount to anything.