Poetry Comparison

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For my essay on poetic comparison and contrast, I have chosen “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by W.E.B. Du Bois, and “The Ex-Basketball Player” by John Updike. Both poems are written in the free verse style of poetry, use a great deal of imagery, and though in a very different context, speak of a man’s accomplishments in life. Both are great poems that in ways are quite different, but at the same time share some splendid similarities.


Both poems are written in free verse. There is no discernible pattern, rhythm, or rhyme scheme; but as we all know, those characteristics do no have to be present to constitute a poem. W.E.B. Du Bois chose the repetition of the phrase “I’ve known rivers” in his poem for effect in relation to the title whereas John Updike selected a more plainly formatted “story” scheme. “The Ex-Basketball Player” however, clearly has a little more physical structure. Except for the last stanza, Updike obviously decided on a five-line stanza format. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” on the other hand is a little more sporadic with the setup of one line, two lines, six lines, one line, one line, one line.


Imagery is definitely used in both poems as well. While it sticks out quite a bit in Updike’s poem, the outstanding use of imagery is quite profound in Du Bois’s poem. With lines like “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins,” and “My soul has grown deep like the rivers,” you cannot help but get sucked into the poem itself. Such proficient descriptiveness can practically put right there on the Euphrates, the Nile, and the Congo along with him. Due to the fact that I love the game of basketball, I personally got the same effect from Updike’s poem without the abundance of those intricate descriptions. Even simpler lines such as “The ball loved Flick.” “His hands were like wild birds,” and “As a gag, he dribbles an inner tube, But most of us remember anyway,” you completely understand what is going on. I will even go so far as to say that you can sympathize with Flick and nearly remember watching him play yourself.


Both poems are about a man and something he has accomplished in his lifetime. For W.E.B. Du Bois, it is the cleansing experience of traveling the world and being one with it’s mighty rivers. It is about a seasoned individual with undoubtedly more to say than just the few lines of the poem and has lived a meaningful, fulfilled life. Flick on the other hand from John Updike’s poem is somewhat of a fallen but not forgotten hero. Also a seasoned individual who somehow went from being a high school basketball star to “selling gas” and “changing flats” at the local service station and playing pinball at the diner in his off time. Other than the respect of some of those who still remember, all Flick has left are his memories.


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To close, expression of self through written text is an awesome form of art. I am a huge music lover so it is not hard for me interpret and relate to a lot of poetry. Both of these poems, so similar, yet so different, were a great read. I hope that my own personal insight could shed a little light on your interpretation of these poems as well as others.





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