Written by Himself

By Gregory Pardlo


📘 Written by Himself by Gregory Pardlo is a captivating poem that explores the complexities of identity and personal history. Pardlo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet known for his vivid imagery and intricate use of language, dives deep into the self in a way that invites readers to reflect on their own identities. The genre of this poem blends elements of autobiographical narrative with lyrical beauty, making it a standout piece in contemporary poetry. This introduction sets the stage to unfold the layers of meaning and technique found within the poem, offering readers a glimpse into the soul of its creator.

Meaning of Written by Himself

“Written by Himself” by Gregory Pardlo is a reflective piece that explores the formation of identity through the lens of personal and historical narratives. Let’s delve into the meanings of different sections of the poem:

Opening section The opening lines of “Written by Himself” immediately set a tone of self-examination and declaration. Pardlo starts with the concept of self-authorship, a powerful metaphor for creating one’s identity:

“I was born in minutes in a roadside kitchen a skillet whispering my name.”

This verse speaks to the suddenness and the everyday nature of birth, suggesting that identity is both a constant creation and a product of ordinary yet significant moments.

Mid section In the middle of the poem, Pardlo intertwines his personal history with broader cultural and historical references. He talks about the legacy of slavery and the ongoing impact it has on personal and collective identity. The poet uses vivid imagery to connect the past with the present, illustrating how historical elements shape personal narratives:

“I was shadow box training, windmilling baby Hercules with bathroom bleach.”

Here, Pardlo highlights a struggle against inherited burdens and the effort to cleanse or overcome these historical weights.

Concluding section The concluding part of “Written by Himself” brings a sense of resolution and defiance. Pardlo asserts his place in the world, acknowledging both the inherited aspects of his identity and his own contributions to it:

“Do not mistake me for a conjurer of cheap tricks. I am the magician’s assistant with escape plans.”

This shows his acknowledgment of the complexity of identity—shaped by both external forces and personal agency—and his active role in defining himself.

In-depth Analysis

“Written by Himself” is not only a profound exploration of self and identity but also a showcase of Gregory Pardlo’s masterful use of poetic techniques. Let’s dissect each stanza to appreciate the intricacy of his craft:

Stanza 1
Imagery and Allusion: The poem opens with strong visual elements that ground the narrative in tangible scenes, like “a roadside kitchen” and “a skillet whispering my name.” This personification of the skillet suggests destiny and identity being crafted from the very moment of birth.

Stanza 2
Metaphor and Symbolism: Here, Pardlo uses the metaphor of “shadow box training” and “windmilling baby Hercules,” which symbolizes the struggle against inherited historical and personal challenges. The reference to “baby Hercules” evokes strength and mythic heroism, contrasting with the mundane act of cleaning with bleach.

Stanza 3
Contrast and Irony: The image of the magician’s assistant with escape plans introduces a twist to the typical role of such a character. It’s ironic because while the assistant is usually perceived as the passive participant in magic tricks, here, the assistant is equipped and ready to assert autonomy.

Stanza 4
Tone and Voice: The direct address to the reader, “Do not mistake me for a conjurer of cheap tricks,” uses a confident and assertive tone. This addresses misconceptions and asserts the poet’s depth, reinforcing his identity beyond superficial appearances.

Themes and Symbols
Identity: Central to the poem, explored through metaphors of creation and performance.
Heritage: The weight of historical and cultural background acts as both a burden and a foundation.
Autonomy: The desire to define oneself outside of preconceived notions.

This stanza-by-stanza breakdown highlights the dense layering of techniques Pardlo uses to weave a complex narrative about identity, history, and self-determination.

Poetic Devices used in Written by Himself

Gregory Pardlo’s “Written by Himself” employs a range of poetic devices that enrich the text and deepen its thematic impact. Here’s a table outlining the top 10 devices found in the poem:

Poetic DeviceDescriptionExample from the Poem
MetaphorA figure of speech that describes an object or action in a way that isn’t literally true.“I was shadow box training, windmilling baby Hercules with bleach.”
AllusionA brief and indirect reference to a person, place, thing, or idea of historical, cultural significance.Refers to Hercules, implying strength and heroic struggles.
PersonificationGiving human traits, ambitions, or feelings to animals, inanimate objects, or abstract ideas.“a skillet whispering my name”
ImageryVisually descriptive or figurative language, especially in a literary work.“I was born in minutes in a roadside kitchen”
SymbolismThe use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities.Using “magician’s assistant” to symbolize personal agency.
IronyA contrast between expectations for a situation and what is reality.“the magician’s assistant with escape plans”
ToneThe general character or attitude of a place, piece of writing, situation, etc.Assertive and defiant in the final lines.
ContrastJuxtaposing two things to highlight their differences.Contrasting historical weight with personal agency.
Direct AddressSpeaking directly to the reader or another character.“Do not mistake me for a conjurer of cheap tricks.”
RepetitionRepeating the same words or phrases a few times to make an idea clearer.Repetition of “I am” in various contexts to emphasize identity.

These devices are integral to delivering the poem’s messages and enhancing its lyrical beauty, making each line resonate with depth and emotion.

Written by Himself – FAQs

Q: What is the main theme of “Written by Himself” by Gregory Pardlo?
A: The main theme of “Written by Himself” revolves around the exploration of identity, particularly how personal history and cultural background shape one’s self-conception. Pardlo delves into the complexity of defining oneself amidst inherited legacies and societal expectations.

Q: How does Gregory Pardlo use poetic devices to enhance the poem’s themes?
A: Pardlo employs a variety of poetic devices such as metaphor, symbolism, and personification to deepen the thematic content. For example, he uses metaphors like “shadow box training” to depict the internal and external struggles one faces while shaping their identity.

Q: Can you explain the significance of the title “Written by Himself”?
A: The title “Written by Himself” signifies autonomy and self-authorship. It suggests that the poem is a declaration of self-identity, crafted and narrated by the poet himself, emphasizing the personal stake and authenticity in the narrative of his life.

Q: What role does imagery play in the poem?
A: Imagery is crucial in “Written by Himself” as it helps to paint vivid pictures that evoke emotions and connect readers to the thematic elements. For instance, the “roadside kitchen” and “skillet whispering my name” evoke a sense of origin and the personal nature of life’s beginnings.

Q: What is the importance of the metaphor “magician’s assistant with escape plans”?
A: This metaphor underscores the theme of self-determination. While the magician’s assistant is typically seen as a secondary, controlled figure in magic acts, the addition of “with escape plans” suggests preparedness and agency, highlighting the poet’s readiness to define his own life beyond predetermined narratives.

Q: How does the poem relate to contemporary issues?
A: “Written by Himself” touches on contemporary issues such as racial identity, historical legacy, and personal freedom. It reflects on how past injustices and cultural histories continue to influence individual lives and societal structures today.

Q: What is the effect of the direct address to the reader in the poem?
A: The direct address in the poem engages the reader more intimately, making the poetic voice more compelling and authoritative. It serves to challenge and involve the reader in the narrative, creating a more interactive and impactful experience.

These FAQs provide a deeper understanding of the poem and its elements, useful for students engaging with Pardlo’s work at an advanced level.

Written by Himself Study Guide

Identify and list all the poetic devices used in the following verse from “Written by Himself” by Gregory Pardlo:

“I was born in minutes in a roadside kitchen a skillet whispering my name.”

Read the verse carefully. Consider the various poetic devices you’ve learned about, such as imagery, metaphor, personification, alliteration, etc. List each device you find in this verse and explain how it contributes to the overall meaning and impact of the poem.


  1. Imagery – The phrase “roadside kitchen” creates a vivid image of the place of birth, grounding the identity in a specific, humble setting.
  2. Personification – The “skillet whispering my name” personifies the skillet, giving it human-like abilities to whisper, which adds a mystical quality to the birth, suggesting destiny or fate.
  3. Metaphor – The entire verse can be seen as a metaphor for being shaped by circumstances and environments from the very beginning of life.

This exercise helps students to engage critically with the text, encouraging them to explore how language constructs meaning and enhances thematic depth in poetry.