How does the form of the poem (ballad form) affect its content (focusing on the issue of racism)?
There is an ironic relationship between the lighthearted form of the poem and its serious social content. While the consistent rhyming pattern and meter make the poem sound like a riddle, fairy tale, or song, the subject matter is grounded in a specific time and place. In this way, the poem deceptively lulls its reader into the narrative, which allows the reader to be shocked when the offensive language of the Baltimorean appears. The simplicity and familiarity of the form make the content all that more impactful.
Analyze two or more words with multiple meanings that enrich your understanding of the poem.
The title of the poem, "Incident," can mean both something that occurs casually and something seemingly minor that can have dramatic or violent consequences. The incident described in the poem fulfills both meanings of the words. The racism of American society is presented casually. Rather than being a remarkable event, what makes the racism so shocking is its everydayness: it is just a passing encounter on a train or bus. At the same time, this seemingly casual event does have dramatic effects on the speaker: the incident exacts a massive psychological toll on the speaker.
We know that Cullen hoped not to be seen as a "Negro poet" but simply as a poet. Even so, he ended up addressing race and racism in many of his poems. How does this predicament overlap with the speaker's own conflict between who he sees himself and how others see him?
Cullen wanted to be a poet of universal themes (love, death, beauty, and so on) and he did not want to be pigeon-holed as a poet who only wrote about issues related to African Americans. Even so, many of his poems discussed racial issues. Similarly, the speaker of the poem does not mark himself racially. He does not describe himself as African American, nor does he specifically name the race of the Baltimorean. However, after he is addressed with a racial slur, he is unable to think about anything but race. His summer, winter, and fall in Baltimore have been sadly reduced to this single moment of racial insult. He is not given the luxury of thinking about universal matters, because people see him only as a stereotype.