So, for my last blog, I spoke to some poets to get an idea of what I should do, and I think I’m going to take a cue from poet John Murillo (Up Jump the Boogie), who suggested that I talk about “soul music,” or possibly about “poetic mentors,” but I’m taking a bit of a slant approach to this, and I’m using both of his suggestions: I want to talk about the blues as a form from which we can learn how to close a poem. In fact, the Blues Stanza, for the longest, was the only American poetic form—and still is the only “traditional” American form, which simply is to say it has a long tradition that we can extend, vary, and translate into the 21st Century. And I also want to talk about poets and thinkers who influenced my thoughts on this subject.
My real understanding of the blues as a poetic form came while I was in my MFA program at Warren Wilson College. In our penultimate semester at Warren Wilson, we have to do a craft essay. I chose the Blues as a Poetic Form by looking at the work of Langston Hughes, Etheridge Knight, and Cornelius Eady. My supervisor was the poet Eleanor Wilner—a great poet, a great spirit, and a blues woman at heart—who guided me and indulged me through thinking about the blues stanza. What place does this stanza hold in contemporary poetics? What can we learn from it? Who were its masters? Etc. This was back in 1997, and I’m still learning from this exploration.
I recently heard Chase Twichell give a wonderful talk on form in which she mentioned how we can’t do form just for form’s sake. We have to push the form to be more flexible. “Amen, sista,” I said in my head, sitting in my seat. I loved the fact that she also pointed out how form, in itself, can be easy to do; it’s making it bend to your will to say something about the human condition that’s hard, making it your own language. When I think about the blues stanza, it’s a form that really forces this need to speak beyond the form. The blues stanza is largely unsuccessful without transcendence.
Transcendence is really what we take from this form into our muscle memory as we write free verse. We need to push the form toward a turn, much like the sonnet, but at the end as opposed to toward the middle. The turn often takes the shape of one or more of the following:
1. Reversal of Fortune
2. Higher Knowledge
3. Stoic Acceptance as a coping mechanism
5. Luck or Supernatural intervention
When you look at this list of ways in which the blues stanza can be resolved—and, to be clear, this is NOT a complete list of possibilities--we find that we can apply these to most free verse poems. But I came to understand this not only through listening to a good deal of blues—Eddie Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Bessie Smith, Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, John Lee Hooker, and Big Mama Thornton, as favorites—but also from reading some profound books on the subject. Mostly, I read everything the late great Albert Murray wrote, the novels and the essays, and then I read everything he referenced.
Earlier in the week I talked about favorite books. If I extended my list past three, a book that would be in my top ten is The Hero and the Blues, by Murray, who died at age 97 on August 18, 2013, the day before I started this blog.
Albert Murray, known as a novelist and essayist, was also a poet; he published a collection at age 85. If you want to see some real blues transcendency played out in a poem, check out his poem on Faulkner, which was published in the New Republic: https://www.newrepublic.com/article/114389/poem-albert-murray-william-faulkner-noun-place-verb .
When I heard Chase Twichell give her talk, I thought about how she’s extending an argument on form that reminded me of Murray. Murray presents an argument for the extension of tradition through working within its original forms—even when artists think of themselves as working “experimentally.” Murray was no square. He was not only hip to change in all its forms but he also was hip to the traditions from which those innovations emerged. With regard to the blues as a form, he aptly makes this case for the extension of its tradition and the tradition of all form in art, in his chapter “The Blues and the Fable in the Flesh”:
“…To refer to the blues idiom is to refer to an established mode, an existing context or frame of reference. But then not only is tradition that which continues; it is also the medium by which and through which continuation occurs…Perhaps a better word for experimentation as it actually functions in the arts is improvisation…The more any art form changes, by whatever means and by whatever methods, motivations, or infusions, the more it should be able to fulfill its original function.”
This could be taken both as sound advice on approaching form and as an ambition for experimentation. At first glance this might sound rigid, but upon further rumination one may be able to see how liberating this can be as an approach. When we think of “improvisation,” we often think of a certain freedom, but we’re actually hearing, in music, a musician at play in form. So, I’m constantly thinking about the ways in which we can bring that level of improvisation to our forms. And we have contemporary examples: I think it’s unavoidable to say that Denise Duhamel falls under this category in every one of her books. I also put Marilyn Nelson, A. E. Stallings, and Natasha Trethewey in this category, book by book. Jen Bervin plays with the sonnet form in singularly original ways in her work Nets. Marilyn Hacker belts out a long Coltrane-esque improvisation in Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons. Evie Shockley is like Miles when he still did ballads in her book The New Black. And Ellen Bryant Voigt bends the sonnet to a blues scale in Kyrie…We have many examples of “improvising” in form in poetry. And, fortunately, we still have poets devoted to extending the blues form, specifically: Calvin Forbes, Sterling Plump, Honoree Jeffers, Tyehimba Jess, and Kevin Young, to name a few.
The basics of the blues form is a three-line stanza in which the first line makes a statement or asks a question, the second line offers a variation of the first line, and the third line offers a response or a resolution. (Often, too, it’s a four-line stanza in which the second or fourth lines may finish a clause from the first or the third lines, respectively.) I say “resolution” because the first line is usually a statement that lays out a situation, a dilemma, in which the speaker is found. I often tell my students that ‘how it is in the poem is how it is in life.’ The “dilemma” posed in the blues stanza is often what most people think of when they think of the blues: a speaker who has lost a job, who has no money, who has lost a lover, etc. But the poem has to find transcendence in some way to respond to this situation, much in the way that we have to respond to dilemmas in life.
We’re most used to seeing variations on this basic form in that three-line stanza, either in an AAB or an AAA rhyme scheme. An example of a fairly traditional blues stanza can be found in this excerpt from Eddie Son House’s “Death Letter Blues,” in which our speaker copes with the loss of his lover, four lines at a time:
“…Lord, have mercy on my wicked soul
I wouldn’t mistreat you, baby, for my weight in gold.
I said, Lord, have mercy on my wicked soul.
You know, I wouldn’t mistreat nobody, baby, not for my weight in gold.
Well, I folded up my arms and slowly walked away
I said, Farewell, Honey, I see you on “Judgment Day.”
Ah, yeah, oh, yes, I slowly walked away.
I said, Farewell, Farewell, I see you on “Judgment Day.”
In the blues form, one of the masters on the page is Langston Hughes. Consider the “The Weary Blues,” line by line, in which he reinterprets the blues idiom, often by breaking from the rhyme pattern within the middle of a stanza. Also, throughout, Hughes riffs on the form by extending the possibilities of the stanza. In a framed narrative of reverie, the first-person speaker gives report of our hero in third person. This allows the speaker to dip into the basic blues form, quoting the singer, and still improvise around it, telling his story. Although the “Negro” gets sleep, a relief, Hughes maintains the associative pattern of struggle, even in the final lines, offering the bittersweet transcendence of coping:
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway . . .
He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o' those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Coming from a black man's soul.
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
"Ain't got nobody in all this world,
Ain't got nobody but ma self.
I's gwine to quit ma frownin'
And put ma troubles on the shelf."
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
"I got the Weary Blues
And I can't be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And can't be satisfied—
I ain't happy no mo'
And I wish that I had died."
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that's dead.
Humor, Higher Knowledge, and Coping mechanisms abound in “The Weary Blues.” What we can learn from the form is to allow ourselves to play within form, to improvise, and to extend tradition, but—just as we remember in the sonnet with the volta—we can also remember to find our way out of the dilemmas we pose by trying to find transcendence, even in free-verse poems. That’s a lesson we learn from the blues not only for our poems but also for our lives.