The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

Questions for Poems by Sterling Brown:

“Memphis Blues”:

  1. Read the sections out loud. What are the rhythms of each? What is the effect of their respective sound patterns?
  2. Why do you think the poet/speaker appeals to the memory of Nineveh, Tyre and Babylon? What does he/she mean by, “Was another Memphis/ Mongst de olden days”?
  3. What is the speaker’s attitude towards the projected destruction of his/her city? Why do you think he claims he won’t worry about it?
  4. In the second section, what will each of the persons named be doing during the projected burning of Memphis?
  5. What are some of the poem’s forms of humor? What do you think is the point/significance/purpose of this poem?

“Strong Men”:

  1. What is the poem’s form? Is it appropriate for its content?
  2. What portions of African-American history are described? What is the response of the enslaved/oppressed?
  3. How do contrasting rhythms help convey the poem’s meaning?
  4. In the speaker’s view, what problems are still faced by his people? To what do you think he may be referring in 1931? What response by people of color does the speaker consider most effective?
  5. What image underlies the poem?

“Ma Rainey”:

  1. How does the poem shift in form between sections? Where is it set? How do the rhythms help convey the story?
  2. Who constitutes Ma Rainey’s audience? What does the poet believe is her relationship with them?
  3. Why is her singing of “Backwater Blues” seen as representative? How does the method of narration reinforce the poem’s point?

“Sam Smiley”:

  1. What is the poem’s form and language register? How are these different from that of the other Stirling Brown poems we’ve read? Why do you think the author may have chosen them?
  2. What are ironic aspects of the account in section I? What does Sam learn from the war?

    What is referred to by his “dreams of one/ Chockfull of laughter, hot of blood”?
  3. On returning home, what does he find has gone wrong, and why? What is his response?
  4. What is his end? What is the effect of the puns on “buckdancing”?
  5. What do you think is the poem’s final tone and/or message?

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