The first 2 lines of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" establish the poem’s themes and its formal pattern. The poem begins with the speaker directly addressing the reader, speaking about his or her experience: "I’ve known rivers," the speaker claims. At first, this doesn’t seem to be all that impressive or revelatory: after all, more or less everyone has seen a river. But over the course of the poem’s 10 lines, the speaker’s apparently unremarkable statement will transform into a bold assertion about black cultural identity and history. As the poem progresses, all three words in the poem’s opening line, "I," "know," and "river," take on new, expanded meanings.
The speaker begins this transformation in the poem’s second line, where he or she announces that there is something special about these rivers. The lines have a parallel construction: both open with the anaphoric phrase "I’ve known rivers," which serves as a refrain for the poem. This encourages the reader to see the second line as an expansion of the first line. More specifically, the second line expands the reader's understanding of the "rivers." They are "ancient as the world"—in other words, as old the earth itself.
The simile (the rivers are "ancient as the world" suggests that the reader shouldn’t focus on the rivers as literal bodies of water, but instead on their relationship to other things: in this case, to the history of the world. As the line progress, the speaker also measures the rivers against human life itself, noting that they are "older than the flow of human blood in human veins."
The second half of line 2 makes use of synecdoche. The speaker is saying that these rivers are older than the human species, but he or she represents humans through one part of their bodies, the blood that flows in their veins. This flowing blood resembles the flowing of water in a river. In this way, the speaker suggests that human beings are like rivers, that they contain rivers.
The first two lines of the poem are visually arresting: the first line is short, almost terse; the next line spills across the page, a full 23 syllables long. Each of these lines is end-stopped, a pattern that will hold throughout the poem (the poem contains no enjambment). The reader also notices, immediately, that the poem lacks any set meter. And it also does not have a rhyme scheme. Indeed, throughout the poem, the speaker avoids using rhyme almost entirely. In other words, the poem is written in free verse. It thus faces a challenge: how to make the poem feel musical, feel poetic, in the absence of a set meter or rhyme scheme.
These lines suggest how the poem meets that challenge: using devices like parallelism and refrain to create music. It also relies heavily on assonance and consonance. Line 2 contains 13 assonant and consonant sounds—it almost overflows with sonic play and pleasure. However, the speaker largely avoids alliteration, perhaps because alliteration is so closely linked to European forms of poetry. Indeed, the speaker’s rejection of meter and rhyme might be seen as part of a broader rejection of white poetic traditions, an attempt to develop an independent black poetic voice, that does not rely on white models to articulate black culture and identity.