A Small Needful Fact

Ross Gay

‘A Small Needful Fact’ by Ross Gay is a powerful poem that presents an image of hope and beauty after a loss. The poem addresses the legacy of Eric Garner and how one might still find his presence in the world. 

ross gay

Ross Gay

Nationality: American

Ross Gay is an important contemporary poet.

He is the author of collections of poetry and a collection of essays, The Book of Delights.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: The worth of every life, regardless of race or identity.

Themes: Death, Identity

Speaker: Unknown

Emotions Evoked: Hope, Sadness

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 21st Century

'A Small Needful Fact' is a poignant and powerful poem that mourns the loss of a life taken unjustly due to systemic oppression and racism.

This piece was written in 2015 after the death of Eric Garner on July 17th, 2014. He was killed by a New York City Police Department officer who used a prohibited chokehold. This beautiful poem was composed in his honor. It suggests that “perhaps” and “in all likelihood” that there are still some plants growing that Garner touched with his “very large hands.”

A Small Needful Fact by Ross Gay


‘A Small Needful Fact’ by Ross Gay is a short moving poem that suggests that there is still hope to be found after someone’s death.

The poem addresses the life and death of Eric Garner. Specifically, the poet refers to the man’s job at the Horticultural Department. While there, he planted flowers, using his “big hands” to place them “gently” in the soil. The speaker suggests that some of these flowers might still be growing. They could be providing homes to small creatures and turning sunlight into food, allowing “us” to breathe. 

You can read the full poem here

Detailed Analysis 

Lines 1-7

Is that Eric Garner worked

for some time for the Parks and Rec.


some plants which, most likely,

In the first lines of ‘A Small Needful Fact,’ the speaker begins by referring to Eric Garner, a young black man who was killed by police in 2014. The poem picks up after the title. So, the beginning would read: “A small needful fact / is that Eric Garner worked…” He worked “for the Parks and Rec. / Horticultural Department,” Ross notes. This job does not. Some might suggest, goes hand in hand with the young man’s brutal death. It’s a peaceful job, one that involves planting flowers. 

The poet plays off this example of juxtaposition to paint a new picture of Eric Garner, one of a gentle man who worked hard and helped foster new life. 

Lines 8-15

some of them, in all likelihood,

continue to grow, continue


into food, like making it easier

for us to breathe.

In the second half of the poem, the speaker suggests that maybe some of these plants are still growing and flourishing. This would leave Garner a beautiful and unusual legacy. They may be continuing to grow where he put them, feeding the “small and necessary creatures” and appearing pleasant to “touch and smell.” 

In conclusion, Gay describes how the plants are working in our favor, making it easier “for us to breathe.” They are converting sunlight into food, living peacefully. This peace leaves readers in a calm and complacent mood. It’s also quite emotional in its description of Garner’s life and how it was cut too short. 

Rather than dwelling on that sadness, though, the poet presents readers with a new image to consider, one of hope and peace. 

Structure and Form 

‘A Small Needful Fact’ by Ross Gay is a fifteen-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines are written in free verse. This means that they do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. 

Literary Devices 

Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to: 

  • Enjambment: occurs 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 six and seven. 
  • Allusion: from the beginning of the poem, Gay alludes to the life and impact of Eric Garner, a black man who was killed in New York City in 2014. 
  • Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “large” and “likelihood” in lines four and five. 


What are the themes in ‘A Small Needful Fact?’ 

The themes at work in this poem include legacy and hope in the face of despair. The speaker utilizes the latter when he describes the flowers, Garner’s legacy. They speak to the impact the man had while he was alive. 

Why did Ross Gay write ‘A Small Needful Fact?’

Ross Gay wrote this poem in order to honor Eric Garner’s life and the impact he had on those he knew. The poem also suggests that he’s still making the world a better place through the flowers he planted. 

Who is the speaker in ‘A Small Needful Fact?’

The speaker is someone who knows about Eric Garner’s life and has considered what the man left behind after he was killed in 2014. Gay may have written this poem from his own perspective, but knowing who the speaker is is not necessary for understanding the poem. 

Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed ‘A Small Needful Fact’ should also consider reading some other Ross Gay poems. For example: 

  • Love, I’m Done with You – explores a breakup, the poet realizing how bad their relationship was once they have escaped. 
  • Ending the Estrangement’ – a poem capturing a speaker’s longing to be with his mother who has died.

Other related poems include: 

Poetry+ Review Corner

A Small Needful Fact

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Ross Gay (poems)

Ross Gay

This is one of Ross Gay's best-known and commonly read poems. The piece is incredibly powerful and highly relatable. The poem explores the loss of Black lives through violence around the United States and highlights the life and death of Eric Gardner in 2015.
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21st Century

The poem represents 21st-century poetry, addressing contemporary issues and emphasizing the importance of social justice. It reflects the role of poetry in responding to and advocating for change in modern times.
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The poem is a reflection of American poetry, emphasizing the importance of honoring the contributions of all members of society. It recognizes the role of poetry in expressing and advocating for social change.
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The poem deals with the loss of life and mourns the death of Eric Garner, whose life was taken unjustly. It confronts the reality of death and its impact on loved ones and communities.
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The poem honors the identity of Eric Garner as a human being and emphasizes the importance of recognizing each individual's identity. This recognition helps to build a more just and equitable society.
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The poem acknowledges the suffering experienced by Eric Garner and his loved ones due to his unjust death but, at the same time, presents some hope that the future is ging to be different.
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The poem mourns the loss of Eric Garner's life and the loss his loved ones feel. It recognizes the pain and grief that come with losing a loved one, especially under unjust circumstances.
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Black Lives Matter

The poem highlights Eric Garner, a black man who was killed by police brutality. It emphasizes the value of his life and his contribution to society, reinforcing the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement. The poem is incredibly moving and direct.
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The poem stresses the importance of recognizing the worth of every life, regardless of their race or ethnicity, emphasizing the need for equality in society.
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There is currently no rating and description for the tag of Flowers.
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The poem acknowledges Eric Garner's past employment in the Parks and Rec. Horticultural Department, highlighting the significance of the contributions of the black community to society's growth and development.
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The poem addresses the oppressive nature of the system that resulted in Eric Garner's death. It recognizes the reality of systemic oppression and advocates for social change to address it.
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The poem exposes the reality of racism in society, illustrating how it can result in the loss of innocent lives. The poet explores real-life experiences and loss, ensuring readers connect the text to their everyday lives.
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Free Verse

This poem is written in free verse, allowing for a fluid and organic expression of the poet's thoughts and emotions. This poetic form emphasizes the emotional impact of the poem's message.
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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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