Blues Poetry; like the lyrical ballad genre of old, like a poetic form; a villanelle (strict form), a sonnet (syllabic verse) and rondeau (strict form) with its rhythmic lines, but just like blues music, it is not so strict with its lines and definitely not with syllables. Blues poetry as with the blues music and lyrics is an emotional state (or statement). “T he Blues” think of the imagery in the naming itself; down in downhearted you think of the river and the river deep; up in praising or praying to God, heavenly sky and all the in between, it is a feeling. Blues poetry does the same thing as the lyrics and music of the blues; it is to make you feel. It (blues poetry) is intended to hit you over the head, stab you in your heart, make you pee your pants laughing at a poor souls misfortune, knowing easily it could have been you. Blues poetry is experiences in the making of a people.
Blues poetry was fashioned along side of the blues music oral tradition rooted in slavery in which the stories and emotions; of hard times, love, oppression, alienation, the suffering of black folk incorporating the rhythm, music and the vernacular speech severing also as history being passed down from generation to generation through songs and storytelling. The blues rhythm originated in the fieldworker of Mississippi, hollers’ of work songs (some trace it to centuries old songs by Griots of West Africa) that generally were three lines, fitting call and respond as well. In these three line stanza, the second line repeats the first and the third line brings home the rhyme. Although the lyrics are rarely in a structured meter, the rhythm is usually iamb, like the beat of the heart bum Bum, bum Bum, bum Bum, bum Bum. Blues poetry start, as with the music is in the gut of the experiences that makes up the African American consciousness and expressive culture.
Again, as with blues music in its several different forms, folk blues, country blues, Memphis blues, urban or Chicago blues, blues poetry has its different forms by region or gender or even by periods of time, but you know it when you read (hear) it. There is a truth in the blues no matter what the form, blues performer Ruby Lacy explains:
It’s some kind of sorrowful feeling that you have of your own self. It’s something that happened to you and caused you to become sorry or something maybe grievous about it. Then you would compose that song to the feeling that you have. And then you would sing it and after you began sing it then you become accustomed to it through psychology that most anybody could have that same feeling as you did. It’s universal, but it doesn’t bring joy in the spirit. The blues are true words of existence among human nature…Singing/writing the blues poetry helps to relieve your natural soul from your natural soul – but not from a spiritual soul […]. In blues I’m just rhyming it for myself but I’m thinking, I’m rhyming in a way that somebody will be happy and enjoy it as I sing/say it.
Blues poetry is a feeling conveyer of a people and its specific issues unique to them (not that no one else can in these times relate to). In a time of its start blues poetry, like the music was an appeal to a certain audience the lower class black or commoner as frequently used. Many middle and upper class blacks rarely knew or admittedly listened to the blues, it was viewed as embarrassing, and to air dirty laundry and many religious blacks considered it sinful or devil music.
Although you have pioneers in blues poetry Sterling Brown, Countee Cullen, Etheridge Knight, Jean Tomer it was Langston Hughes that corned this genre and brought it out of the basement sort-of-speak, publishing two collection of blues poetry books one being “The Weary Blues”(1926). Langston Hughes a poet of the Harlem Renaissance, a lover of jazz, blues and resilient nature of his “common” people, he believed that well to do blacks weren’t the only black worth putting a pen too. Hughes himself had humble beginnings and remembers listening to the blues music with his grandmother at the age of six in Kansas City, where he also got his appreciation for reading and writing. Traveling along with Zora Neale Hurston through the south as she collected folklore, this trip helped Hughes to unite oral and written tradition. In his poem: Bound North Blues he follows the structure similar to the three stanzas, lines repeating with variations and the last line bringing home the rhyme. This poem is filled with the southern vernacular and narrative of the great migration of African American journey north from south, which wasn’t always by train. A travelin’ man is which is taken in the first verse; Goin’ down the road, Lawd/goin’ down the road (repeated second line with varation, third line(last line) rhyme), Got to find somebody/to help me carry this load he got sorrow but he ain’t full of it, yet. Second verse; road’s in front o’ me/ nothin’ to do but walk (again repeated second line w/variation third line (last line) rhyme), I’d like to meet a good friend/ to come along an’ talk many people in the migration especially black men travel by foot, alone, leaving all you know and knew with only the word-of-mouth promise of more air. In the third verse he states; hate to be lonely/ Lawd, I hates to be sad also of people trying to take advantage of him being alone away from family and friends in the last line/stanza; but ever friends you finds seems/ like they try to do you bad continuing with the final verse in a moaning if sung he repeats the word road, ending with the slight hope of word-of-mouth promise in saying; these Mississippi towns ain’t / fit fer a hoppin’ toad.
By the time the New Negro came and up until the Black Arts Movement rolled around blues poetry had taken a turn from three lines to free verse almost pushed out by jazz and the aesthetics of the New Negro. Blues poetry still held true in its sorrowfulness black cultural issues but also growing in political awareness and shaping’s. In 1974, the God-father of Hip-hop Gil Scott Heron published “Winter in America” a poem of hardships, struggling of the people, usually the lower class, who else feels the changing more of the season a homeless person or a man with a heating/cooling place to lay his head? Winter is hardship for the poor and America and her political policies are a direct memory of her contradictory institutions for a lot of her citizens. Not only does Gil’s poem embodies the blues it’s structure isn’t far from that which Bound North Blues rest on, It has in the verses a repeated line and also rhyme. It is a narrative poem that has a lot of poetic details like the vultures circling beneath the dark clouds/ looking for the rain (repeat looking…rain) each verse has rhyme and repetition. My favorite verse in this poem has metaphors, personification and imagery in addition to the rhyme and repetition; The con-stitution/ a noble piece of paper/ with Free Society/ struggle but it died in vain/ and now Democracy is ragtime on the corner/ hoping for some rain/ looks like it’s hoping for some rain. What a picture in one’s head, all that makes America different, beautiful is a homeless person on a corner hoping for relief.
There was no shortage of women blues writers, in fact in blues music the black woman was the first to be recorded and distributed in the mainstream Bessie Smith. Zora Neale Hurston thought it precious to collect and preserve the vernacular tales and lures and a great few woman writers in the sixties, seventies and eighties tried their hand at blues poetry N’tozake Shange, Nikki Giovanni, Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez and my final blues poem “Deep Song” by Gayl Jones (1983) from her poetry book “The Hermit Woman”. Deep Song is unlike the folk blues of Hughes, more close to the urban blues of Scott but of course that of a gender difference. “Deep Song” is the woman blues that caters to a closer blues than society; it is the heart, the male/female relationship.
Gayl Jones “Deep Song” is in itself into a state of the blues, the voice of the poem is moving the reader through conscious and unconscious thoughts, we are feeling the lady blues singer, singing her deep song, and it is calling her name! That is why we the reader can move through her different mind sets. What it is missing in rhyme, it makes up in repetition and travel. Poetry of the blues eludes the self-conscious, imitator inevitably, there is no safe passage says David Chinitz author of Literacy & Authenticity: The Blues Poems of Langston Hughes and this statement is something felt when reading Jones. She is listening to the Lady sing, he is sitting with his legs apart with a broken fly telling her she is crazy, she is listening to the lady sing and she knows he is good sometimes and he is bad sometimes and she loves him just the same, that is the blues.
Blues poetry is one of my favorite genres to read of poetry, it is a reflection of my colored glasses in which I choose to view the world. Blues poetry is a valid poetic form because I am validly here. Blues poetry is the truth; it is somebody truth if it’s not mine this time around, but it never is too far away from me. It is a genre, a form that came from the gut, the heart, the sweat, the back, the hands or a people who utilized slavery, oppression, miss fortune, miss-education and sung it out, wrote it out, saying you ain’t alone in this. The blues poetic is an experience in the making of a people with all its lows, imagery and ironic narratives. Ralph Ellison said that although the blues are often about the struggle and depression, they are also full of determination to overcome difficulty “through sheer toughness of spirit”. This resilience in the face of hardship is one of the hallmarks of the blues poem and I so agree.