Creating Situational Irony in Poetry

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Creating Situational Irony in Poetry

Poetry often tells a brief story which encapsulates the entire life of a character in a few verse paragraphs. A skilled poet can generate an infinite variety of emotional responses from the reader, depending upon whether he or she intends the general tone of the work to be happy, sad, comedic, or ironic. In particular, situational irony can be difficult to create unless the correct words are chosen to direct the reader to the intended ironic conclusion. In his poem, "Mr. Z", (848) M. Carl Holman tells the ironic story of the title character and his struggle to live in a racially biased society while trying to remain racially neutral in all aspects of his life. The descriptive language Holman uses leaves little doubt that Mr. Z is a black man who deliberately shuns everything associated with his race. The ironic twist that he is dubbed "One of the most distinguished members of his race" (26) simply doesn't work unless the reader knows he's black.

The first such evidence that leads the reader to believe that Mr. Z is a black man is the fact that he "Disclaimed kinship with jazz and spirituals" (4). "Disclaim" literally means to deny connection to or responsibility for something; "kinship" denotes a familial relationship; "jazz" is the term for a unique form of music that was developed by Negro musicians in New Orleans circa 1920; and "spirituals" are defined as Negro religious folk songs. Taken as a whole, this statement tells us that Mr. Z wanted nothing whatsoever to do with Negroes or Negro music.

Another clue to Mr. Z's race is revealed in the statement about his diet. "His palate shrank from cornbread, yams and collards" (11) gives the impression that he disdained these uniquely ethnic foods. While cornbread and yams do not connote any particular ethnicity, the word "collards" certainly does. It refers to a leafy type of kale that is commonly found in the Deep South, which is a staple in the diet of many Southerners, particularly Negroes.

These descriptive terms allow the poet to convey the idea that Mr. Z is black without saying it plainly, thereby creating the situational irony that is evident in the last line of the poem.
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