Stephen Henderson in his book Understanding the New Black Poetry1 wrote that some verse forms used in Afro-American literature were “adaptations of song forms,” which “include blues, ballads, hymns, children’s songs, work songs, spirituals, and popular songs.” Henderson said that in particular the ballad, the hymn, and the blues are “numerous and easily recognizable.” He continued, “The first two have numerous parallels in other literary traditions. But the blues as a literary form was developed and refined by Langston Hughes and later by Sterling Brown, though Hughes clearly overstated his case for the fixity of the blues form in his preface to Fine Clothes for the Jew.”2
Henderson mentioned the “’classic twelve-bar, three line form” of the blues, as in Eddie “Son” House’s “Dry Spell Blues”:
The dry spell blues have fallen, drove me from door to door.
Dry spell blues have fallen, drove me from door to door.
The dry spell blues have put everybody on the killing floor.
And so forth. But despite his overstatement of the fixity of the blues form, Langston Hughes was much looser in his practice. He never used this triplet form, preferring merely to express the sadness that is the tone and subject of “the blues,” which he defined in his poem titled “The Blues”:
When the shoe strings break
On both your shoes
And you're in a hurry —
That's the blues.
When you go to buy a candy bar
And you've lost the dime you had
Slipped through a hole in your pocket somewhere —
That's the blues, too, and bad!
Hughes also tied “the blues” to music in a much less formal way in the title poem from his prize-winning first book in 1923, “The Weary Blues”:3
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."
My own first attempt at writing the blues took place at Yaddo where I spent part of the summer of 1959 between graduation from the University of Connecticut and entering the Writers’ Workshop of the University of Iowa in the fall. Unwittingly following in Hughes’ footsteps, and in the true tradition of improvisation, I was having lunch in my room one day with the artist Roger Crossgrove. We were discussing how quickly one could create an image or write a poem, and I said that I could write a decent poem in fifteen or twenty minutes. Roger scoffed at me. I got a pad of paper and a pencil and said, “Give me a subject.” “How about that waitress we were flirting with last night at the dive across from the racetrack?” he replied. I said, “Okay,” and the result was,
Lorrie looked good — man,
she was a jazz band, straight
as a clarinet, and the tunes she played
with her hip action wowed my crowd.
Lorrie swung like a prime ensemble,
smiled the cool blues as we sipped our
brews in the racetrack dive while the
bass thrummer, a basic type, swiped
at the strings, making us think
of beds and things.
There we were, dancing our eyes
among the beers while Lorrie walked
her pert way among us, mashers all,
and we asked, "What's up tonight,
"I've no time," she smiled, "no time —
I'm a college girl, my major's law.
"By night I slide drinks down
to your hands, and in the daylight
I guard lives at Ryall's beach."
Then, when the jazz bunch quit and
the horn stopped snorting
and the drums bumped the last bum
out the door, we went too, man,
we went too
Who wants to see Lorrie meet her beau?
Who wants to see his old eyes, older
than she'll ever be, and his dark hands
grab her wrist hard as they leave to park
in the raceway woods?
My collaborator of many years, the printmaker George O’Connell, who is also an amateur jazz musician and plays the vibes in local bands, loves this poem. He made a beautiful Xmas card of it in 1984 and, later on, an entire Artist Book which he gave to me.4
Wikipedia says that “The lyrics of early traditional blues verses probably often consisted of a single line repeated four times; it was only in the first decades of the 20th century that the most common current structure became standard: the so-called AAB pattern, consisting of a line sung over the four first bars, its repetition over the next four, and then a longer concluding line over the last bars. Two of the first published blues songs, ‘Dallas Blues’ (1912) and ‘St. Louis Blues’ (1914), were 12-bar blues featuring the AAB structure. W. C. Handy wrote that he adopted this convention to avoid the monotony of lines repeated three times.”
The musical notation of the structure of the blues, AAB, does not show the literary form which is AAa: the capital letters indicate a repeated line, and the small a is a synthetic parallel that rhymes with them. The rhyme would change in the second and succeeding stanzas, BBb, CCc, and so forth. Here is my description of the blues stanza from my The New Book of Forms5 in 1986:
American. A triplet stanza derived from the Black jazz tradition of lamentation or complaint, rhyming AAa. Usually written in loose iambic pentameter measures, the second line is an incremental repeton of the first line, the third line a synthetic parallel giving a consequence of the first two lines.
Later in his book Stephen Henderson, discussing improvisation, wrote that “A poem may…differ from performance to performance just as jazz performances of ‘My Favorite Things’ would. Moreover, it implies that there is a Black poetic mechanism, much like the musical ones, which can transform a Shakespearian sonnet into a jazz poem, the basic conceptual model of contemporary Black poetry. The technique, the fundamental device, would be improvisation, lying as it does at the very heart of jazz music.”
As to turning Shakespearian sonnets into jazz poems, one can even blend the sonnet with the blues; this following sequence, written by my anagram avatar “Wesli Court,” was included in another of my books — like The New Book of Forms published in 1986, Visions and Revisions of American Poetry.6 The first three poems are terza rima sonnets, but the third, “Envoi,” is the first example ever written, to the best of my knowledge, of a blues sonnet which is a quatorzain (any fourteen-line poem or stanza other than a true sonnet) consisting of four blues stanzas written in iambic pentameter meters plus a heroic couplet: AAa BBb CCc DDd ee. As in all sonnets, there is a volta or turn toward the end of each poem, in this case after the last triplet:
THE BONEYARD BLUES7
I'm sitting in the boneyard singing songs,
Sitting singing songs as blue as blue —
Considering my days, their shorts and longs,
The days we spent together, me and you.
Yes, you and me and all those other folks
Who've come and gone. Oh, please don't misconstrue
My meaning — yesterday is gone in strokes,
In strokes and chimes, and time cannot be turned,
I'm well aware; it plays its dirty jokes
And leaves us on our ashes, bare and burned.
We bare our hearts, and then we burn our spans,
But who's to say what lessons we have learned?
The ifs and maybes, shall-bes, will-bes, cans
Turn into bonedust, rusting pots and pans.
Rusting pots and pans pile up and ring,
Pile up and ring us round with shards of loss,
With echoes of the songs we used to sing
In living rooms and bedrooms filled with moss,
With moss and lichen now of recollection.
The kitchen where we used to sit and toss
Together meals of love and of affection
Has grown a mold upon the oven grate,
And there is nothing left of our confection
Except a little sweeting on a plate,
The plate of dreams, its edges chipped and cracked.
In the beginning already it was too late —
The gun was loaded and the deck was stacked.
The tune could not provide what the lyrics lacked.
And so I'm sitting in this boneyard, blue
As blue, and singing songs that leave me cold.
The words — they may be false, they may be true,
They may be new — more likely they are old,
As old as flesh and time. I hear the knell
Of generations as the peals are rolled
Among the stones, within the stony well —
That stone-cold well of destiny gone dry.
Who is the sexton hauling on the bell?
Why is the deacon grinning at us? Why?
Why are his cheekbones sunken, and his teeth
So moonlight-gleaming? Wherefore is his eye
The hollow of a heartbeat underneath
The zero of a withered floral wreath?
Just let me drop this note into the dark,
Yes, let me drop this note into the dark —
I'll light it with a match and watch it spark.
I'll sail it into night with fire and flare,
Fly it into darkness, see it flare
And wink out in those shadows circling there.
I'll watch it take its place among the stars,
Among the minor planets and the stars.
I'll hum the blues, not much — a couple bars —
Until the spark has died to inky ash,
And words have flickered into smoken ash.
Then I'll have me a sip of sour mash,
And lean against this marker made of stone
That will not last as long as ink or bone.
In 1988 the printmaker George O’Connell used my next blues sonnet, “The Birdsong Blues,” in one of the series of Xmas cards he and I had been producing for many years:
THE BIRDSONG BLUES8
The graybird sings as though there were no fall,
He chirps and sings as though there were no fall,
No wild west wind or winter snows at all.
The world will end and then where will he be?
The wind will call and then where will he be
With nothing at all for him to do or see?
He'll hover underneath the northern lights,
His wings will hold him still beneath the lights
That flicker and race in wild electric flights
Across the cloud-hung oceans. He will lie
Above the misty oceans — float or lie
With nothing left to note, nowhere to fly.
Till then he sings — he gives his song to air,
To anything that might be listening there.
The following year O’Connell used another “Wesli Court” blues sonnet in a card; there is a reproduction of it on the web page of the Smithsonian Institution Archive of American Art and at the top of this blog entry:
THE XMAS BLUES9
It's Christmas Eve down at the Cabaret.
The combo's swinging at the Cabaret —
Some of the dancers are in disarray.
We're waiting for Santa to come jiving by,
Jiving along as he comes juking by,
ringing his bells and flying kind of high.
Jerry whacks the keys, George bops the vibes,
Hugh hoots his horn while George raps on the vibes
And here and there a customer imbibes
A cup of nog or a glass of scuppernong,
A mug of yuletide cheer or some scuppernong
To help him listen to the Turk's torchsong.
The band is wailing and Santa's overdue.
He's sporting red, but he'll be swinging blue.
“The Oil Spill Blues” celebrated the maritime disaster of the Exxon Valdez:
THE OIL SPILL BLUES10
The captain caught a thirst and left the helm.
He said, "Third mate, come here and take the helm,
I'm going to go below and overwhelm
A fifth of Scotch." The mate gave him relief.
He had no papers, but it was his belief
That he was smart enough to miss a reef
Marked on every map as black as ink,
As large as life and just as black as ink.
But, no, he wasn't. At least they didn't sink.
And now there's miles of slick on everything —
The otter's fur, the rocks — on everything
Alive or dead, afloat or on the wing.
The ship is on the reef. It's underhelmed.
The captain feels no pain. He's underwhelmed.
My next attempt at the form was meant to memorialize an unforgettable event that I have forgotten:
THE WORMY BLUES11
I feel the worm again down in my craw,
That worm the harpy Fate stuffed down my craw
While I stood staring with a gaping maw.
I shut my mouth, but it was far too late.
I shut it slowly and a lot too late —
I had to swallow down the worm of Fate.
My gullet is its home. It wiggles there.
It's found itself a home — it likes it there!
It makes me choke and retch till I could swear...,
Except my new pet worm gets in the way.
The words can't slide on by — it's in the way
Of everything I try to do or say,
So I will write it out, make my pet worm
Writhe upon the page, wriggle and squirm.
The next blues sonnet was written for a collection of poems never to be published as a separate entity, A Book of Proverbs. Its epigraph came from a 17th-century book of aphorisms:
CONTEMPLATION BLUES SONNET12
"He that contemplates hath a day without a night."
He who broods has neither day nor night.
He lives in timelessness and in twilight,
Thought verging from dream to dream through dark or light.
The crystal fountain glimmers beneath the moon,
Its waters shimmer beneath the tumid moon,
Each drop clearer than the shadows of leaves at noon.
The shadows of leaves become the bowers of evening.
Shadows transmogrify the power of evening:
They are silence and meditation convening.
The skies of morning have trembled to darker blues,
Have stopped themselves down till they are the darkest blues
And here are umber and silver, no other hues
Even in starlight, in the sunshine's brightest ray,
For he who broods has twilight without day.
My most recent attempt to deal with the blues sonnet was written in reply to a question posed by my friend and correspondent, the poet John Fandel:
THE OXYMORONIC BLUES13
I got a letter from my old friend John,
A funny letter from my poet-pal John —
He wants an example of an oxymoron!
"What is it?" he asks, "A phrasal self-destructor?
A trope, a figure of speech that will self-destruct or
cause an embolism in an instructor?"
I'm as surprised as a sloppily neutered bull,
as a particularly stupid neutered bull
sheepish because he's suddenly had the wool
pulled over his eyes. My head begins to whirl,
my eyes begin to swivel in a heady whirl
as I try to think...to think about a girl
in such a pinch, a woman whose round eyes
make a silent commotion of surprise.
Sad to say, I have written no blues sonnets since 1993, though I have written several poems using straight blues stanzas, most recently a poem written for another old friend, the poet Herb Coursen:
HERB PLAYS WITH THE BLUES14
September 12th, 2001:
Alas, my buddy Herb has got the blues,
My poor old buddy Herb's deep in the blues.
But it's an exercise, it's not the news
That's got him in the dumps. It's not the dust
That's covered New York City deep in dust
And rubble ¾ no, it's not the boom and bust
Of terror from the skies on a summer day,
A brilliant, clear and sunny summer day
Buried in suffocating clouds of gray
Smoke and soot and scattered body parts
Of once whole people merely body parts
That now must be removed in trucks and carts
From the streets of Old New York. Our world is changed
Forever now by monsters, forever changed,
And we who live in it have been estranged
From what was real. The solid earth we knew,
That solid sod that once we walked and knew
Is now surreal ¾ planes dropping from the blue
Into towers falling onto streets
That are no longer avenues and streets
But silent canyons. Herb, this form repeats,
This form called blues, but so too does despair,
These images of death and of despair
That sunder us beyond hope of repair.
1Stephen Henderson, Understanding the New Black Poetry, New York, NY: William Morrow, 1973.
2Langston Hughes, Fine Clothes to the Jew, New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1927.
3——, The Weary Blues, New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926.
4Originally published in The Carolina Quarterly, xiii:3, 1961, first collected in The Sketches of Lewis Turco and Livevil: A Mask, Cleveland, OH: American Weave Press, 1962, used in a Christmas card, print by George O'Connell, Oswego, NY: Grey Heron Press, 1984, and ultimately collected in Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems of Lewis Turco 1959-2007, Scottsdale, AZ: Star Cloud Press, 2007.
5Lewis Turco, The New Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1986.
6——, Visions and Revisions of American Poetry, Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 1986.
7Collected in Wesli Court (pseud.), The Gathering of the Elders and Other Poems, Scottsdale, AZ: Star Cloud Press, 2010.
8"The Birdsong Blues," Christmas card, print by George O'Connell, Oswego, Mathom/Grey Heron, 1988; periodical publication, Hellas, i:1, Spring 1990, p. 59; collected in The Gathering of the Elders, op. cit.
9"The Xmas Blues," Christmas card, with lithograph by George O'Connell, Oswego: Mathom/Grey Heron, 1989; periodical publication in The Café Review, i:11, 1990, p. 47;.reproduction on the web page of The Smithsonian Institution, Archive of American Art, 2002.
10"The Oil Spill Blues," 80 on the 80's, edited by Robert McGovern and Joan Baranow, Ashland: Ashland Poetry Press, 1990, p. 110.
11"The Wormy Blues," The Café Review, i:11, 1990, p. 47.
12"Contemplation Blues Sonnet," The New Review, i:3, Feb.-Mar. 1993; published as one of the series titled “A Book of Proverbs” in the Collected Lyrics of Lewis Turco / Wesli Court, 1953-2004, Scottsdale, AZ: Star Cloud Press, 2004.
13"The Oxymoronic Blues," Blue Unicorn, xvii:1, October 1993, p. 30.
14“Herb Plays with the Blues,” The Formalist, 13:1, 2002, pp. 105-106; collected in The Gathering of the Elders, op. cit.
The Collected Lyrics of Lewis Turco / Wesli Court, 1953-2004, www.StarCloudPress.com, 2004. ISBN 1932842004, jacketed cloth, $49.95; ISBN 1932842012, quality paperback, $26.95, 460 pages, © 2004, all rights reserved. ORDER FROM AMAZON.COM.
The Gathering of the Elders and Other Poems by Wesli Court, www.StarCloudPress.com, September First, 2010, ISBN 978-1-932842, trade paperback, $14.95, 115 pages.
The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics by Lewis Turco, Third edition, www.UPNE.com, 2000. ISBN 1584650222, trade paperback, $24.95, 337 pages. “The Poet’s Bible," A companion volume to The Book of Dialogue and The Book of Literary Terms. ORDER FROM AMAZON.