On Shane McCrae's"Was Pretty Was Kids"
by Victoria Chang
Was Pretty Was Kids
Was pretty was kids
said I looked / Like Michael Jackson Michael Jackson 1982
And skinny sometimes wouldn’t eat for days
Was pretty and he saw it was / Pretty he saw it too
Pretty for boys / To be a boy
Pretty it made him angry talked as if
It made him angry talked / Why
would I want to look like that / And didn’t look at me I thought
He didn’t like me knew he
didn’t like niggers and I was one was half
Niggers and I was one and wasn’t also wasn’t
old enough to be afraid of him
the way a man / Would
he held me down face down
When I think about risk in poetry, I think about the act of making something or reading something that looks different, sounds different, and feels different in some/many ways. This type of poetry might initially be uncomfortable and, even more, unpopular. The challenge, of course, is that as the human race continues to change, progress, and improve, it’s a lot harder to write or find poems that do seem to be risky. At some point, a lot of poems and books begin to sound like each other.
One poet, Shane McCrae, doesn’t sound like anyone else. His subject matter is always bold and his voice is always authentic. McCrae writes on a broad range of subjects ranging from parenthood, childhood, marriage, and race.
But where McCrae shines is his unique use of form—caesuras, slashes, lack of punctuation, repetition, and line breaks populate his poems as a way to control the rhythms in his poems, but in many ways, have the opposite effect. These mid-line breaks, slashes, lack of punctuation, repeated words and phrases, and enjambment unravel McCrae’s formal poems (which are always all iambic sonnets with 70 beats) and suddenly, his poems, oftentimes small (often linear) narratives become new and fresh.
In his poem, “Was Pretty Was Kids,” McCrae uses repetition to make the speaker’s voice more urgent, such as in the very first line, “Was pretty was kids.” The repetition of one word, “was” makes the line sing musically, along with the iambic rhythms. But this type of music isn’t peaceful—it feels obsessive, possessed, and urgent.
Similarly, “Was pretty” is repeated again in the fourth line, but everything is shattered: “Was pretty” is without its former partner, “was kids,” and in the same line has morphed with a jarring slash, “was/Pretty”—as in no longer pretty.
Later in line 10, the repetition appears again in a different form of “was half” and in the next line (11), becomes negated to “Niggers and I was one and wasn’t also wasn’t.” McCrae’s use of repetition, and how he morphs repetition, has an unsettling effect on all of his poems.
McCrae’s use of caesuras and slashes help him bring metrical forms to his poems as they indicate line breaks in a traditional sonnet. But the outcome is nothing regular. These caesuras and slashes act as enjambments and disruptions. In line 9, “didn’t like niggers and I was one was half,” the caesurae has the effect of an enjambment, leaving “was half” alone, stark, and minimal, but full of power and meaning.
Obviously, “was half” was meant to mean partially African-American, but the caesurae gives it new possible multiple meanings as only partially in existence, not whole, and not worthy—in the same way “also wasn’t” at the end of line 10 and its enjambment, gives the words greater meaning of not existing or invisible (without the line break, the line reads, “also wasn’t old enough”).
McCrae’s formal inventiveness is his way of marrying form and free verse. And like many risk-takers, he uses what exists already and makes it truly his own.