Poetic Form: Blues Poem
PostedFebruary 21, 2014
One of the most popular forms of American poetry, the blues poem stems from the African American oral tradition and the musical tradition of the blues. A blues poem typically takes on themes such as struggle, despair, and sex. It often (but not necessarily) follows a form, in which a statement is made in the first line, a variation is given in the second line, and an ironic alternative is declared in the third line.
African-American writer Ralph Ellison said that although the blues are often about 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.
Some of the great blues poets include Sterling A. Brown, James Weldon Johnson, and Langston Hughes. The title poem of Hughes’ first book, The Weary Blues, is also an excellent example of a blues poem. It begins:
"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 . . . "
Another example is Brown's poem "Riverbank Blues," which begins:
"A man git his feet set in a sticky mudbank,
A man git dis yellow water in his blood,
No need for hopin', no need for doin',
Muddy streams keep him fixed for good."
Contemporary poet Kevin Young is continuing the tradition; his most recent book, Jelly Roll, is a collection that draws heavily on the blues tradition. Young is the editor of the anthology Blues Poems.