‘Beware: Do Not Read This Poem‘ was included in one of Reed’s most influential collections and is one that best exemplifies his influence on the Black Arts Movement. It was written at the end of 1968 and later reprinted in 1972. Reed’s ability to bring together allusions to various historical and social moments is seen it its best advantage in ‘Beware: Do Not Read This Poem.’ Readers may find themselves inspired to consider the underlying meaning of the poem in greater detail.
Explore Beware: Do Not Read This Poem
‘Beware: Do Not Read This Poem’ by Ishmael Reed is a complex poem about culture, language, and storytelling.
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker starts out describing the unfortunate end a vain woman came to. She surrounded herself with mirrors, that is, until the villagers entered her home, and she was forced to disappear into one. These relatively straightforward details have a clearly fantastical element to them. The speaker describes how the woman haunted the home, making various men and women disappear.
The speaker transitions into speaking about the poem itself and how, like the mirror, it consumes people. Many are like “you.” By using second-person pronouns, the reader becomes part of the narrative. Here, the language changes again, and readers find themselves engaged with more colloquial speech with misspellings and more.
When the poem concludes, the speaker details some of the statistics around the poem and all the people that have disappeared.
You can read the full poem here.
Throughout this poem, the poet engages with themes of isolation and reality. Isolation is seen right from the beginning with the woman who hides away in her home with only her mirrors for company. She’s so desperate to remain on her own that she jumps into a mirror to stay away from the villagers. At the same time, she takes people into the mirror, a seemingly desperate attempt to remedy her isolation. Just as the mirror absorbed the woman, so too can this poem absorb a reader. No matter how fulfilling it seems, reality can’t be fully explored within the confines of a mirror or poem. At the same time, the poet is alluding to a deeper theme of cultural dominance and prominence. The poem is a protest against singling out one culture or way of life as better or more worthy than another.
Structure and Form
‘Beware: Do Not Read This Poem’ by Ishmael Reed is a twelve-stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. These lines are written in free verse. This means that they do not conform to a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. They vary in length, ranging from one word up to eight or more. Despite this, Reed does use a variety of literary devices that help give the poem a feeling of unity and inspire the reader to explore its lines more than once.
Throughout this poem, Reed makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet uses the same consonant sound at the beginning of a word. For example, “locked” and “life” in stanza three.
- Enjambment: This can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. Almost every line in this poem is enjambed.
- Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line of text. For example, “you are into this poem. from” and “move & roll on to this poem.”
- Allusion: seen when the poet references a piece of information that’s not completely described in the text. It may require extra research to understand fully.
tonite, thriller was
about an old woman, so vain she
whole life became the
In the first lines of ‘Beware: Do Not Read This Poem,’ the speaker begins by telling the reader about an old woman. She was “so vain” that she surrounded herself with many mirrors. Considering these first lines and the title, it quickly becomes clear that this poem is a cautionary tale. Readers should expect to learn something or be reminded of something by the end.
The woman’s vanity got so bad that she confined herself to a room. Her entire life became about the mirrors. These lines set up the background to what feels like a dark fairy tale or piece of folklore.
Stanzas Four and Five
one day the villagers broke
then the young woman’s husband
In the next two stanzas, the speaker goes on to say that one day villagers broke into her home, and she disappeared into a mirror. This element of magic confirms the folklore atmosphere of the poem. She haunted the house from within her mirror, ensuring that everyone who lived there lost a loved one. They ranged from a little girl to a young woman and then “the young woman’s husband.” It’s at this point that the poem makes its first of two distinct shifts.
Stanzas Six and Seven
the hunger of this poem is legendary
it has taken in many victims
it has drawn in your legs
back off from thias poem
it is a greedy mirror
you are into this poem. from
The poem changes in the sixth stanza. It’s now directed to the reader, using second-person pronouns like “you” and “your.” The poet wrote these lines as though the poem itself was an entity that needed to be watched and monitored. It has “taken many victims,” the speaker says, and now it’s sucking in “your feet” and then “your legs.” It’s important to back away from these words, the poet adds.
For readers, it’s important to consider the nature of the language in these lines. There are distinct shifts between more formal and more colloquial speech in these lines. It is part of the meaning of this poem and how the writer wanted readers to consider language and culture.
Stanzas Eight and Nine
the waist down
nobody can hear you can they?
this poem has had you up to here
this poem has his fingers
this poem has his fingertips
The language becomes even more relaxed in the next lines as the speaker uses words like “ain’t” and phrases like “got no manners.” This is a common feature of Reed’s poetry. He often wrote from his specific African American perceptive, using language and syntax that’s recognizable in his community.
By this point in the poem, the words have taken the reader over. It has “your eyes” and “his head.” There doesn’t appear to be any way to stop the progression.
this poem is the reader & the
reader the poem
a space in the lives of their friends
The poem ends with a striking transition to statistics. The speaker reports that “in 1968 over 100,000 people / disappeared leaving no solid clues.” The poem is responsible, as the mirror was, for consuming people. There was no trace of these men and women, “only / a space in the lives of their friends.” Readers should also note the use of spaces in these final lines, alluding to what’s been lost and hopefully inspiring readers to consider what would fill the metaphorical blank spaces.
The purpose is to caution readers against becoming too obsessed or consumed by one way of life or one cultural point of view. Just like the old woman, and like “you” in the second section, it’s easy to get sucked in and forget about everything else.
The tone is cautionary and explanatory. The poet’s speaker addresses the reader, attempting to make it clear that becoming too attached or consumed by this poem or any other is a negative..
Reed wrote ‘Beware: Do Not Read This Poem’ in order to explore, in his characteristic style, the nature of culture and language and how one makes the other. He wanted readers to consider how the two come together and what it means to explore more than one culture/language.
‘Beware: Do Not Read This Poem’ was published in Catechism of d neoamerican hoodoo church in 1970. But, it was written two years earlier, in 1968. The poem was later republished in a new collection of his verse in 1972.
This poem is so popular because of the unique way it approaches its subject. The poem requires readers to understand the underlying meaning behind the folk tale while at the same time analyzing the language the poet uses.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Beware: Do Not Read This Poem’ should also consider reading other Ishmael Reed poems. For example:
- ‘Untitled’ – is a short, precisely worded poem that connects the sale of the Alaskan territory in 1867 to the British plundering of Jamaica.
- Other related poems include:
- ‘I, Too, Sing America’ by Langston Hughes – emphasizes a Black man’s feelings of alienation from the rest of American society and his determination to be counted as equally American.
- ‘The Importance of Elsewhere’ by Philip Larkin – is a poem about Irish culture. The poet describes himself and his life in Ireland as an Englishman.