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“Bearded Barley” is a poem written by Tacoma Community College professor Allen Braden. The speaker of this poem is an observer, and the audience is commoners or those who under-appreciate the barley plant. The poem goes into detail about the plant by describing the appearance of it, explaining how it is utilized and emphasizing why it is strong. The central idea of this poem is to convince the reader that what may seem insignificant (barley) may, in fact, be significant.
To begin, in the first two couplets the poet uses visual imagery to describe the appearance of barley as it grows. For example, Braden uses personification by describing the plant as “proud” to give a feeling of confidence in the way it stands. He does this again in line two “stretching” to describe the fact that it grows upright. The use of “arrow”, “wand”, and “whiskers” again helps to create images in the reader’s mind on the appearance of barley. Lastly, the use of adjectives “skinny”, “gold”, and “stiff” all help to add clarity to the visual images through the poet’s language. In the third couplet, the poet attempts to connect with the audience by using the pronouns “you” and “us”. He uses the second and first-person point of view to try a more personal approach by referring to the audience as the barley itself. There is a contrast between the necessities for barley to grow (water, dirt, and light) and what it gives (summer magic). This shows the plant’s ability to transform something simple into something more complex.
Couplets four, five and six go on to explain who uses barley, what it is used for, and why it is important. Braden sends across a strong sense of dependability with his diction: “The millstone, the baker, / the slave, pulpit, and priest, / they all send their regards” (7-9). It is obvious that the people he listed depend on barley for their livelihood because it’s an important part of their occupations. It is then explained that the plant is used to build empires and that people pray for its safekeeping. This is a strong statement because it shows that people depend so much on it that they are willing to bring their religious beliefs into the picture. The continued use of the second person point of view again draws in the audience and allows them to feel emotionally connected. The tone of the rest of the poem seems to shift to fierce, intense, and powerful. The poet creates strong visual imagery: “When a cloudburst in August / bows you flat against the earth” (13-14). A contrast is created between the new and old: “below the teeth of the combine, / even the sickle’s blade and cradle;” (15-16). This couplet reflects on the history of how barley is harvested while also emphasizing the strength of the plant itself.
Braden also accomplishes this by pointing out the mythical natures of barley: “Or when a twister drives you / clear through a telephone pole;” (17-18). Here, the durability of the plant is pointed out again, but this time beyond measure. The seventh, eighth and ninth couplets are connected to the rest of the poem. In the last three couplets, Braden introduces the first-person point of view with the pronoun “I”. He does this in an effort to complete the poem with the final relationship established with the audience (who he still refers to as the barley). He also does this by personifying the plant: “I could have sworn I saw you / hopping a train for the mill” (20-21). The barley is then described as being “determined”, and the poet then allutes to the Bible: “determined on being refined / into a loaf of bread or angel food / or maybe even the body of Christ” (22-24). In these last lines, the barley plant is compared to the body of Jesus Christ. It is easy to tell the significance the poet is trying to convey, seeing that Christ is such an enormous figure in Christianity. The message of the last six couplets is that barley can be beaten down, cut away, and go through complications, but it will persevere through those obstacles because it is determined to be transformed into something greater.
The title, “Bearded Barley” is significant to the meaning of the poem as well. It creates a picture in the audience’s mind with alliteration and visual imagery, since the grains on the head of the barley give it the appearance of having a beard. Imagery seemed to play a strong role in sending the message the poet was attempting to convey. Braden blew up the details of the barley in order to convince the audience that it is significant and extraordinary.
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