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The Poem of the Poor Man

A poor man knows not
how to eat with a rich man
if he begin to eat fish
he eats the head.
Invite a poor man
and he comes disreputably
he comes licking his lips
he is an upsetter of the platter.
The poor man has no reserve
if he is called he comes
with the blood of lice
in his fingernails.
The face of a poor man
is furrowed
by hunger and thirst
that is in his vitals.
Poverty is no state
fit for mortal man
it makes him a beast
to be fed upon grass.
Poverty is no right thing
when a man gets it
though he be nobly born
he has no power with God.

-- Swahili Folk Poem

Many people tend to misinterpret this poem so I am including a thorough interpretation by Richard Osolen of Broadband Learning below:

Lecture 3

On Reading “The Poor Man”: Rhetoric in Africa

Some Preliminary Notes:

Pre-modernist poetry is often not allusive (see the first note at the head of ‘Lecture 2, On Reading “Their Behaviour”’), but it is still poetry. It still not entirely clear.

Poets, unlike essayists or story-tellers, don’t tell; they show, so a reader needs a hook, something to respond to.

In the following lecture, I begin with Reader Response, but the book that I got this poem from tells me so little about the historical context that I cannot use either Historicism or New Historicism. I could try to research the various cultures that speak Swahili, but that research would be too vast for the time I have and even if I could get it done, I would have no way of locating this one small poem in all that culture and history. Therefore, I depend on New Criticism—especially rhetoric—and wrap up my analysis with Critical Reading.

Note that I am not writing an essay. I am showing yet another way of reading a poem.

This lecture is rather long because there is so much here to learn.


What caught me in this poem was the very last clause: “he has no power with God.” This struck me as very extreme. In my culture, no one has power with God. God holds all the cards. Who does have power with God? I could not understand. Then Santiago shared his insight with us and I began to feel more comfortable about the whole poem. I understood from Neo-Marxist criticism or Critical Reading that every text has a voice or voices, so I wondered whose voice we are hearing. I also intuited that the poem changes from the beginning to the end. I wasn’t sure how I got that intuition. It was just a part of my response, so I stuck with it. Armed with Santiago’s insight, I read the poem over again a few times and then I noticed a pivotal moment. The last stanza begins with the words, “Poverty is unjust”. This is not the voice we hear in the first stanza. The speaker in the first stanza sounds like a rich man making fun of poor man, a rich man more sensitive to his own superiority than to the poor man’s suffering: “The poor man knows not how to each with the rich man./ When they eat fish, he eats the head.” In Critical Reading, one would ask, whose voice is not being heard? The poor man’s, obviously.

My grandfather was a peasant from Easter Europe. When he brought fish back from the lake and fried them, one part for him was succulent above all others: he loved to suck out the eyes. I told this to a friend of mine once, a Cantonese man who had done post-doctoral research in Vienna on high-energy physics—no peasant indeed. He told me that his people, the Chinese, also treasured the eyes of a fish. So, I think, perhaps the rich man “knows not how to eat” with the poor man. This kind of response is called “a dissonant reading” or, in a very charming phrase, “vexing the text”.

The first three stanzas are altogether very scornful. In our seminars, we became the victims of the poet’s rhetoric in those stanzas. We found ourselves arguing the rich man’s point of view: the poor can pull themselves up if they want to, and many of them even prefer to live like that. The rhetoric of the first three stanzas drives us to polarize the representation of rich and poor. The rich are sophisticated; the poor are filthy bumpkins, “with the blood of lice under [their] nails”. If we are going to draw any identity from the first three stanzas, we will certainly not identify with the poor as they are represented here and so we identify with the rich, exclude the poor, ignore their voice, and think of both rich and poor only in terms of narrow stereotypes, one favourable and one not.

I remember once when I was invited by two of my students to their flat on Jameson Avenue to participate in a religious celebration. The girl brought me a book from the library so that I could learn about their religion in advance. When I got to their apartment, I was amazed by the lavish wealth of the religious display, the utter poverty in which they lived, and their exquisite hospitality. Their tiny apartment was terribly shabby but exquisitely clean. I could see people slept in the living room and through the crack of a partially opened door I could see an older brother sleeping; I imagined he worked at nights. My two students never did learn English properly and their parents were not as fluent as they, but all four engaged me in courteous and interesting conversation. They gave me food from the religious display—I have rarely tasted fruit so large and sweet—while they took none. They showed me a video of the rather primitive little factory that the extended family depended on for their support in their home country. Then they prayed. Then they bade me good-bye. They were poor, desperately poor, both back home and here, and I imagine none of them would ever escape their poverty until my students had Canadian-born children themselves. And yet in spirit they were abundantly rich, richer I would say than our Queen, with whom, if you can believe it, I have also dined.

How does the rhetoric in the first three stanzas drive the reader into the extremes of false stereotypes to the advantage of the rich? I don’t know how much of this rhetoric is in the original Swahili, but I have yet to encounter a piece of literature that doesn’t use rhetoric in full force. Rhetoric, like narrative, is a particularly human way of organizing things, so I suspect much of this rhetoric comes from the original. Get ready for an onslaught: antithesis, parallelism, pagoresis, hyperbole, metonymy, satire, and sarcasm. I will explain most of it, leaving a bit up to you, but I suggest you also use the link, “Learning Rhetoric”, which will take you to a website called Sylva Rhetoricae, or The Forest of Rhetoric. Begin by searching the terms I have listed above.

These terms are rather overwhelming, I admit, but what they represent is natural and easy. The key is to visualize what the words in the poem say: “The poor man knows not how to eat with the rich man./ When they eat fish, he eats the head.” As I have done in Lecture 1 on reading “Their Behaviour”, when I read these lines I imagine a dramatic situation and I try to see as much of the people, their actions, and the setting as I can. Then I listen to them perform. I have read Things Fall Apart so I have some images in my mind of how a rich African lived in pre-colonial times. (Achebe’s novel is set in West Africa and this poem is from East Africa, but I am not concerned about that in my response at this point.)

The rich man lives in a compound with many huts. His is the largest and is richly decorated within and without. He has invited the poor man in and they are both sitting on intricately woven mats, perhaps with some of the rich man’s friends, as the rich man’s eldest daughter brings in the main part of the meal, a large roasted fish. Now I must look closely at the words. The first thing I notice is the writer’s division between ‘they’ and ‘he’: “When they eat fish, he eats the head.” It seems small, but it is not, because the whole of this little world lives only in these few words. ‘They’ are the rich man and the poor man together. The rich man has generously offered to bring the poor man into his circle and he now watches horrified as the poor man excludes himself with his crude, ignorant behaviour. None of us wants to be poor, or unsophisticated, or a social isolate. We identify with the rich man. Through the poet, we hear only the rich man’s voice. The poor man is noisily sucking on a fish head. We, witnessing this barbarity, can also reflect on the implication that the poor man doesn’t even know enough to be embarrassed. Thank god we are not him!

We the readers have negotiated this meaning with the words, but the writer has crafted the words so that we will get the meaning she wants. The first act is Reader Response. Without that negotiation, the lines would mean very little. The poem would be ‘difficult’. With that negotiation, it is not difficult at all. The second act is rhetoric, for us a part of New Criticism. The poet has engineered the reader’s response with three rhetorical devices or rhetorical figures, called tropes. Find out what tropes are by searching the link on “Learning Rhetoric”. At the same time find out what rhetorical schemes are. Barack Obama uses many rhetorical schemes in his speech. We will analyse that too, I hope.

I have referred to two tropes that the poet uses in the first stanza of “The Poor Man” so far. First, I visualized and dramatized the image that he or she provides in the second line. Imagery is a rhetorical trope. If you search our site, you will find that it uses the word ‘description’ rather than ‘imagery’. The term ‘imagery’ is very specific to the twentieth century, the historical period in which I spent 57 years of my life. I therefore favour that term. Which particular term we use doesn’t matter very much. The acts of visualizing, dramatizing, hearing, and so on, however, are essential to all effective reading, not just poetry. You will also find on the site that there are about sixteen Greek words for different kinds of description or imagery. The good news is that you don’t need to know any of them in order to learn rhetoric, but do read the English in the list to see how many, many, many kinds of description are possible. The second trope I have referred to is contrast. Search the site. This time you need to know the Greek word because it has been naturalized into English: antithesis. In my analysis, I would assert that antithesis is the dominant rhetorical trope in “The Poor Man”. In the first stanza alone I can cite three examples of antithesis just off the top of my head: the antithesis between ‘they’ and ‘he’, the antithesis between rich and poor, and the antithesis between those who know how to behave and those who don’t. I suspect that with a little more thought a reader could find more examples.

There is a third trope that I have not mentioned: sententia. Search it on the site. The webmaster lists the following synonyms: adage, apothegm, gnome, maxim, paroemia, and proverb. I have never heard of paroemia, and it seems that the spellcheck on my computer hasn’t either, but then, as I said, there is a great deal that neither of us knows. The value of writing as if you are quoting a proverb is that you invoke all the weight of your culture’s tradition in your argument. You bask in the authority of your culture. In rhetoric, this is called the appeal to authority. The terms, you see, are really not very complicated. The only problem is that the Greeks and the Romans, especially the Greeks, were the ones to work all this out so we have a lot of Greek and Latin terms floating around. If you relax and work, that can be fun too.

Given that the first line of the first stanza is a sententia, we get another antithetical structure in the poem. The poet begins stanzas one and three each with a sententia (pl. sententiae) followed by a vivid, dramatic description or image, a general statement supported by a specific one. If she creates two stanzas that are parallel in structure, that is a scheme called, naturally enough, parallelism. She varies her parallelism in stanza two by beginning with a command. I searched ‘command’ on the site and found ‘pagoresis’. It is a beautiful word, but I doubt I will remember it. It is a warning or a command and it also is related to cause and effect: If you invite a poor man into your house, he will upset everything, not just the dishes but you, your family, and your friends. Thus the description, “upsetting the plates”, can also mean upsetting you. The meaning in the verb is transferred from the plates to the rich man and, since the reader identifies with the rich man, the poet manages to convince the reader that he should be upset by poor people too. You could identify any part of this process and give it a name, such as transference, and you will have done rhetoric without even going to the site.

There is, however, an official term for what is happening here and it is unfortunately both a very difficult and also widely used one: metonymy. Look it up on the site using the alphabetical navigation bar on the right of the screen and then use your cursor to widen the screen that shows up, or just search for metonymy. We use metonymy when we speak all the time. When we say the library closes at four what we really mean is the librarian locks the doors at four. In the first statement, the word ‘library’ stands in for ‘librarian’. (For those who want a brain twister, the word ‘library’ also stands in for ‘doors’; that trope is called synecdoche, another very widely used term.) These very common tropes are used by everyone in daily speech because they are such a convenient shortcut. Who wants to say the librarian locks the doors when one can say the library closes? Creative writers use this natural device to create meaning and to manipulate readers into negotiating just the kind of meaning they want to create. So in the second stanza of “The Poor Man”, “plates” is a metonymy for ‘table-setting’, which is a metonymy for ‘household’ which is a metonymy for ‘family’ or ‘a harbour of well-being in a difficult world’. If the poor man is represented as disrupting well-being so crudely and carelessly, then as long as I focus on well-being and imagine only my own well-being, I find my identity with the rich man. I no more want that thug in my home than he does. The poet has determined how I have negotiated the meaning of her poem. This is how rhetoric works.

I recognize that the analysis in the previous paragraph is difficult. Follow it as well as you can. Speak to me if you like, but even if you cannot follow the analysis all the way, do focus on the two main points. The main points are first, that you the reader have negotiated a meaning with the text, and second, that the writer through a whole network of rhetorical tropes and schemes has manipulated us into agreeing with her argument. And I am not just blowing air here. That is exactly what happened in the seminars. Eventually everyone was saying things against the poor, just as the speaker in the first three stanzas wants us to. Rhetoric is a natural aspect of speaking and writing and representing. Those who can master it have power. Those who cannot “vex the text” become controlled.

But our poet is much more subtle than that. She is not merely a propaganda meister. She is an artist of the first order. She not only uses rhetoric; she uses critical thought. Following the dominant trope of antithesis, she has made the last three stanzas diametrically opposite to the first three. (Three and three, by the way, is a very pleasing pattern or scheme in itself.) As a reader, I first noticed the change in the last stanza, where she begins, “Poverty is unjust.” The speaker in the first stanza is utterly contemptuous of the poor. He is so taken by his own status, wealth and power, he cannot possibly hear the poor man’s voice, or even conceive that he has a voice, a point of view, a life worth considering. He could never say, “Poverty is unjust.” And the statement itself is powerful: it is the only three-word sentence in the poem, completely unadorned. This is anti-rhetoric. “Look at this sentence,” the poet says. “Now I am no longer performing; I am speaking the truth.” This of course is just more rhetoric, just another performance, but it is the performance that utters the voice of the poor man and is the representation in which I find my identity. Since all interpretation and analysis begin with a reader’s personal response, it is very possible that some reader may identify with the rich man. I cannot imagine it, but I must leave the possibility open because rhetoric works with each reader’s personal response.

The poet signals the shift in voice and representation by a shift in rhetoric. The third stanza does not begin with a sententia and contains no artful antitheses (plural of ‘antithesis’): “The face of the poor man is lined/ From the hunger and thirst in his belly.” This is a single sentence, a straight description with straight cause and effect. If the poor man looks ugly (his face “is lined”), it is because he is starving and parched. The last word, “belly”, is wonderfully concrete, an image that ends the stanza like an exclamation mark! This new speaker is not scornful. This new speaker speaks empathetically for the poor man. She gives him a voice, and then proceeds in the next three stanzas to argue for him. How unjust is poverty? It can happen to a rich man too:* “If it befalls a man,/ though he is nobly born, he has no power with God.” Once a man is poor, he is trapped in iron. There is no escape. Even God turns his back on him.

Now when I read this poem, I see a performance. I see the poet at first enacting the rich man, luring us in to our own prejudices, and then I see her changing voice and assaulting us with our own guilt. She vexes the reader. Identifying with the rich provides no safety, she tells us. Once you are poor, and anyone can become poor, poverty grinds you to dust. For this writer, the only response is understanding, compassion, and a call to social justice. Others may read the poem differently.


*The Star published such a story this past Saturday: Mark Maloney, “A tragic, shocking fall from grace”, Toronto Star 24 Feb. 2007: F5. You could also search for it on . I called this “general reading” in the first lecture. You need to do such things. If you learn only what I teach you, you will not learn everything you need.