Bête Noir (Harryette Mullen) poetry profile

Stylistic Textures and Poetic Diction
Coefficient of weirdness (wackiness otient) 4
Ambiguity 3
Ambivolence 2
Irreverence 7
Sobriety 9
Humor 3
Eloquence 10
Plainness 6
Sincerity 6
Smoothness (vs roughness, bumpiness, striation) 8

(a lot of transitional words like “and” make it flow)
Neat (vs messy) 8

Contained in fairly traditional form, grammatically correct, ending seems all tied in.
Pretentiousness 4

Only gets a few points for the use of French.
Subtlety (vs bluntness) 2
Indirect (vs straightforward) 3
Intelligence 9
Visual imagery 9

Beer and skittles, giant thumb and forefinger, human charcoal
Dreaminess 7
Particularity (vs generality) of details 9

See visual imagery
Stylistic consistency 10
Innovation 5
Originality 7

Seems to come from the white minstrel’s POV. This is an unusual choice for an antiracist black poet.
Ornamental/decorative 4
Relevance 7

Minstrelsy is in the past but the racism that led to it and resulted from it certainly aren’t. Also, white people still find ways to put on blackface.
Tastefulness 10
Speech-like 6
Dialect 8

Ain’t all, jimjams
Sampling (use of found or quoted material) 1

Unless phrase “bête noir” is something I’m missing
Comprehensibility 9
Coherence 9
Spontaneity 6
Exploratory 4
Density 3
Predictability 5
Abstractness 2
Sensuousness 2
Wearyness 6
Timidity 5
Bravado 7
Courage 8
Unusual vocabulary 8

Jollity, use of French
Complexity 2
Repetitiveness 1
Self-consciousness 6
Artifice (vs “natural”) 5
Difficulty 2
Modern/contemporary (vs old fashioned) 2

Is a contemporary poem but wouldn’t necessarily know it
Referential Opacity / Transparency Ratio (outward/inward pointing) 6

Point of View
Direct POV of author as speaker (monologic / lyric)

Monologic, third person. Free indirect.

It is about the depressed white minstrel man. The narrator doesn’t have a personal.
Narrator (epic)

See above.
Multiple POVs (dialogic or polyvocal)

Textual Subjectivity

The tone of the text is objective. Just telling the story of a white minstrel who falls into moments of depression right before his performances. Outsider POV.

Political 7

It’s about the implications of a white man doing blackface. Content that racial is inherently political.

Radical—I would argue that it’s a radical move for a black woman to get in the head of a white male minstrel performer
Urban 3
Pastoral 1
Moral 8
Sexual 1
Religious 1
Spiritual 2
Mystical 1
Philosophical 3
Love 1
Family 1
Ethnic/racial 10

Blackface is an inherently racist, and therefore racial, practice.
Nationalistic/patriotic 1

Or maybe it’s more like an 8 because blackface is an American custom, so the poem concerns national identity. Since it condemns rather than celebrates this practice, however, it is hardly patriotic.
Gender 3

Gets a few points for mention of his gender (“white man”) but it’s not a central theme.
Mortality (death) 9

At the end he is dangled over the dark mouth of the black beast. While this is a figurative image, it still uses the danger of death as a device, and therefore concerns mortality.
Illness 4

Hint he could suffer from depression possibly (mention of jimjams). Probably a stretch.
Conflict (war) 1

No war, but the man does seem to have a good deal of internal conflict.
Discontent 10

The poem is centered around his discontent.

Developmental / Temporal / Compositional Structures
(What holds the poem together?)
Fragmentary / disjunctive / nonlinear / discontinuity [parataxis] 4

The holy jimjams grab him, shake him loose
Logical/expository continuity (linear 1/ hypotaxis) 8

And…while…with…made of…

Narrative continuity (beginning, middle, and end) (linear 2 / hypotaxis) 6
Journey 2
Journal/diary 1
Stream of consciousness/thought process 1
Dream-like/surreal 4

Depends on how we interpret this bête noir
Closure 7
Symmetrical 5
Fast paced 6
Jerky 4
Kinetic (moves from one thing to another) vs. static (continuous present)

Programmatic or procedural

Couldn’t find what this means in the resources?
Received form (sonnet, ballad, etc.)

Lyrical? Doesn’t have a structural form.

Irony 9

It is ironic that she is telling this story from the POV of white minstrel. Also ironic that he performs jollity but falls into jimjams and is held above mouth of scary bête noir.
Paradox 7

I guess that last part about performing jollity/suffering professional jimjams can also be seen as a paradox.
Exaggeration 3
Understatement 2
Simile 1
Metaphor 10

Bête noir is a metaphor; just not sure what for.
Personification 1
Symbolism 10

The bête noir is symbol for something. Anger? The wrongness of his actions? Existential lostness?
Allegory 1
Enjambment 10

Each stanza is a run-on line.
Metonymy 10

Beer and skittles represent happy easiness
Literary or historical allusion 1

At least, none that I caught. Unless bête noir is a literary allusion to something?

Narrator has no persona. Seems alienated, uninvolved
Programmatic or procedural structure

Procedural? I think?

[rate the first term only]
Scary/reassuring 8
Dark/light 8
Impersonal/emotional 6
Engaged /disaffected (alienated)  2
Affirmative/skeptical/ hostile 4
Elegiac (mournful) / celebratory (panegyric) 8
Hot/cold 4
Angry/friendly 6
Cool/uncool 7
Turbulent/calm 3
Disturbed/content 6
Reckless/cautious 3
Happy/sad 1
Depressed/elated 8
Bright/dull 3
Meditative/unreflective 9
Bubbly/sober 4
Elusive/explicit 3
Erotic/dispassionate 2
Mysterious/apparent 6

Mystery comes from wondering what the black beast is

Syllables per line

Varies/no pattern
Lines per stanza or for poem

First stanza: 7

Second stanza: 6

Poem: 13

Words per line

Varies/no pattern

Visual Shape/Form:
Flush left, justified/ragged prose, overall “field” design, etc.

Flush left. Two stanzas. Very traditional. Read left to right, top down.

Dissonance/cacophony (noisy, harsh) 2
Melodious/harmonious/ mellifluous (“pleasing”) 8
Assonance 2
Alliteration 6

Minstrel man
Rhyme 1
Off-rhyme 1
Metrical patterns 1
Obtrusive (vs not noticeable) 1

Author’s date of birth/death

Born 1953 (age 63)
Date of poem’s composition

I can’t find it!
Place of composition

I can’t find it. She was born in Alabama, grew up in Texas, and went to school and teaches in California.
Relevant socio-historical facts

This is about a blackface minstrel performer. Minstrelsy was popular for many decades in the United States. White people entertained themselves by painting their faces black and pretending to be black and carrying out wildly racist portrayals.
Relevant biographical facts
Relevant ethnic, gender, national, sexual orientation

Mullen is a black woman who grew up in the South of the United States..
Title: yes/no; if yes: use/connection to poem

Yes: Title is French, not sure what significance of that is. Means “black beast.” Also last two words of the poem. This is what the white minstrel man is dangled over—again, I’m not sure what it represents. Could be fury of black people who he is mocking in his performances, or a dark depression (earlier, jimjams are referenced). It seems most likely it represents the moral reckoning he will have to face.


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2 Responses to Bête Noir (Harryette Mullen) poetry profile

  1. Erica Mena says:

    I’d love to know more about how you found this process of engaging with the poem – was it useful? Enlightening? Reductive? Simplistic?

    I want to probe into a few things you’ve said, also! “Since it condemns rather than celebrates this practice, however, it is hardly patriotic.” Isn’t it patriotic also to condemn injustice and inequality, since USAmerican national ideals rest on the ideas of justice and equality? Does patriotism always have to be celebratory?

    I think the dangling over the mouth of … is an allusion to a fundamentalist Christian preacher Johnathan Edwards during the First Great Awakening and his sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. But what’s interesting is that it’s an allusion to me because I’ve studied this period of American History, but it wasn’t to you because you’re unfamiliar with it. And so whether or not Mullen intended the allusion, I read something there that you didn’t, but both readings are legitimate. I wonder how you think this affects the idea of enumerating / ranking / scoring a poem based on it’s qualities?


    • emmaaxelrod says:

      I think your comment about my response to patriotism is dead on. I’m actually a bit alarmed that I wrote that, because I’ve actually been labeled unpatriotic for criticizing certain aspects of this country (mostly its racism) and this has always bothered me! I’ve always countered that the most effective way to love your country is to try to make it better. I wonder why I forgot that when I was writing this response? I think I was so focused on trying to get everything “right” that I took the term patriotic very literally, as in I pictured people wearing red, white and blue and chanting “USA! USA!” Thanks for pointing that out.

      Also, thank you for enlightening me to the allusion, that gives a lot more depth to the poem for me! I had a feeling there was allusion I was missing. I think that the idea of readings being altered based on what the reader brings into it is fascinating, and something I definitely want to explore more sometime in another response.

      I am about to post another response about my experience profiling the poem!


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