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"The Ballad of Birmingham," a poem by Dudley Randall

Kennedy & Gioia, 7th edition, pp. 604

This worksheet begins the third and last unit of this course, the study of poetry.  Before you begin, be aware that because most poetry is not narrative in structure, an alternate interpretive strategy is needed.  Also, there are various poetic devices which are either fairly unique to poetry (such as rhyme) or are much more common and significant in poetry.  To learn these poetic devices, the alternative interpretive strategy, and when to use it, before going further you should read these links in my website (all found within the Writing About Literature page):

The course usually covers a relatively small number of poems (about seven to ten), most of which are only one page or less in length.  Nevertheless, that still means that now, toward the close of the semester, a student will still face a worksheet on some poem or other coming due every several days.  That is a doable task because of the negligible reading involved, and especially if you first ground yourself by studying the two above links.  But to help further with this first one, here is a hint:  "The Ballad of Birmingham" is a narrative poem.  That means you can, in essence, treat it like a very brief short story, focusing as you are accustomed to do mainly on social conflict, inner conflict, and character change.

First, however, note that this particular poem is not essentially a work of the imagination.  It was written by an African-American poet in response to a vicious bombing by White racists of an African-American church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, a bombing which killed innocent people, including several children.  Before plunging into the questions about the poem, I urge you to study the links below.  This poem, the events which provoked it, and those occurring decades later (2001 and after) involving finally rendering justice on the bombers, serve to emphasize both the very worst and very best of the spirit of Americans.  This is a piece of actual American history you are studying.  Here are the links:


As I said above, I am providing a "fudge factor" on this poem:  It is a narrative poem.  There are not a large number of events described in the poem, but there are enough sequential, cause-and-effect events to treat it, in essence, as a brief short story.  Thus you can analyze it with the same literary devices you have been using all semester.

The Questions:  Five at Twenty Points Each

As a daily grade, answer these questions:

1.  What is the obvious type of social conflict present when White members of the Ku Klux Klan bomb a Black church in an attempt to terrify Alabama African-Americans from seeking integrated schooling?  Secondly, what other type of social conflict is shown between the mother and the daughter in the poem, when the daughter asks to be permitted to march in a Freedom March, and the mother sends her to church instead, fearing not just the violence of racist crowds, but also that of the police themselves ("For the dogs [police K-9s] are fierce and wild, / And clubs and hoses, guns and jails / Aren't good for a little child.")?

2.  Notice the tragic irony present when the supposedly safe place the mother sent her daughter turns out to be the church targeted by the bombers.  Now, looking briefly at a specifically poetic device, notice the lilting, sing-song rhythm of the lines of the poem.  It is intentionally written with the same childlike rhythm as a nursery rhyme.  Tell how this rhythm adds to the sense of tragic irony the poem possesses.  Hint:  think of contrasting tones when answering this question.

3.  Now, considering all you know so far, and putting yourself in that parent's place, describe the various emotions she must feel after her daughter's death.  These emotions make up her inner conflict.

4.  The presence or absence of character change is hard to determine in this poem, because the "story" stops at the moment the mother finds only her daughter's shoe, and realizes that without meaning to, she has sent her own daughter to her death.  But we need to speculate, in order to derive a theme.  I see three possibilities.  All of the three entail character change, because I simply disbelieve that any parent could experience such a thing and remain unchanged.  But the possible changes are each very different.  I will name two; you will try to name the third.  One possible change, a bad one, would be if the mother is simply emotionally and spiritually ruined, either to the point of being unable to function, or perhaps even to the point of taking her own life.  A very different but equally bad change would be if the mother, instead of turning her anger inward, turns it outward.  She herself could become a mirror image of the racists who murdered her daughter, becoming someone who hates all Whites.  My preference, however, is to see a positive change from the terrible tragedy.  How might the mother's character change in a good way?  Hints:  Before the bombing, she and her family have remained uninvolved in the fight for equal rights; her daughter has ironically died due to this very unwillingness to become involved.  Who might find herself at the very forefront of the next march for civil rights, and what sort of positive character change might that suggest?

5.  Considering all factors so far, especially everything mentioned in question #5 and your answer to it, now state a theme for this poem, a moral lesson which might apply to anyone in that mother's position.  (A review of how to state a theme:  One good way is to use this format:  When a person is faced with [state the issue], that person should [state the moral lesson].

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