Wanda Coleman

the ISM by Wanda Coleman

‘the ISM’ is a quite unconventional poem written by the American poet Wanda Coleman. This piece touches on a variety of concepts with which the suffix “-ism” can be added.

Wanda Coleman’s poem deals not with the suffix “-ism,” but it revolves around the concepts with which it gets attached. The concepts alluded to in ‘the ISM’ seem to be racism, colorism, materialism, capitalism, and many more. It is quite interesting to mention here, the poetic thoughts are adaptable to each of these concepts. There is no limitation of thoughts. Rather it keeps all the ideas open-ended. A reader can think concerning a particular concept (such as racism) and wonder that it also fits into this piece. It’s the beauty of Coleman’s poem.

the ISM by Wanda Coleman



‘the ISM’ by Wanda Coleman describes how several modern concepts influence a human mind and how the poetic persona is molded by them.

This poem revolves around the influence of the “-isms” on Coleman’s mind. The speaker, who is the poet herself, expresses how concepts like racism, capitalism, and others influence her mind. The reflection of the ideas is everywhere. In the air, the people living around the speaker, music, supermarket aisles, television, streets, even in the flashing street lights, a person can find the reflection of those things. Thus, it influences the mind and shapes it according to the idea that is accepted by the majority.

You can read the full poem here.



This eleven-line poem is written in the postmodern style. It does not resemble any conventional form or structure. Even the lines do not conform to the ideal sentence structure. Alongside that, readers cannot find any specific rhyme scheme in this piece. It is in free verse and the internal rhythm maintains the overall flow.

Another important thing to mention here is that the text has an intricate structure. The flow never halts in the middle. Besides, Coleman mostly uses the trochaic meter along with a few metrical variations.


Literary Devices

The first literary device that comes to attention, is a metaphor. Readers can find this device in the title and it seems to be a reference to racism or capitalism. In the first line, Coleman uses inversion or hyperbaton.

The most important literary device of this piece is enjambment. This device can be found throughout the text. As an example, in the first two lines, readers can find this device that is used to connect these lines internally.

There is a personification in the line, “strolls along with me/ down supermarket aisles.” The last two lines contain irony.


Detailed Analysis

Lines 1–6

tired i count the ways in which it determines my life


down supermarket aisles

Wanda Coleman’s ‘the Ism’ begins directly. The speaker is tired. She counts how a specific concept determines her life. Coleman does not clarify what the concept is. Readers can take it as racism or capitalism. The most appropriate concept seems to be capitalism or materialism.

Whatsoever, the idea permeates everything. The speaker says, “it’s in the air.” In this quoted line, the “air” is a metaphor for the idea mentioned in the poem. When her neighbors living next door stare at her, she can sense that they are also looking at her from that perspective. Through this line, it seems the speaker is referring to racism or colorism.

In her office, her colleagues also treat her in that manner. Even in the music that comes from the radio of her car, there is either some lines promoting colorism or capitalism. While she strolls down the supermarket aisles, she can see how materialistic modern people are.


Lines 7–11

it’s on television


when i would speak of other things

In this section, the speaker refers to the television shows or films promoting capitalist ideas implicitly or explicitly. Nowadays nothing related to this is shown implicitly. Readers can easily understand the hint.

When she walks casually in the streets, the ideas impregnated on her mind from external sources, keep revolving. On the banners over the flashing street lights, the advertisement reminds him the materialistic aspect has become a part and parcel of modern life.

Due to such manifold influences, Coleman later discovers that she is also speaking their language. When she speaks of other things, her subconscious comes into play. It unknowingly makes her think in the way the consumerist market wants.


Historical Context

Wanda Coleman’s ‘the ISM’ was published in her poetry collection “Imagoes”. It was published in 1983. Through her writing, Coleman talks about social inequalities. In this poem, she presents a modern picture. How the concepts such as colorism, materialism, capitalism, and consumerism play with human minds, get featured in this piece. Besides, the poet depicts the transformation of the mind due to the constant influence them. In modern times, if a person daily sees, hears, and thinks about how the world is acting, it is natural that the mind starts to adapt to the setting. In this way, the thinking-process is shaped. The speaker’s evolution depicts this epigrammatic idea.


Similar Poetry

Here is a list of a few poems that are similar to the themes and subject matter of Wanda Coleman’s ‘the ISM’.

You can also read about the best poems on change and incredible poems about life and fulfillment.

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Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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