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The Blues Stanza

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Explore the Craft of Writing
American Verse

The Blues was born in 19th century from the African American experience expressing "lamentation and complaint". Originally written for music, with the 3rd and 7th notes of the scale flattened, the poem should capture the same minor tone. The Blues confronts life head on, often expressed in sarcasm, wit and humor. Langston Hughes (1902 - 1967) is credited with making the Blues as much a part of American literature as it is a part of American music. It is poetry "created on the fly", as the blues singers did, making up lyrics on the spot. . . . A statement is made, then repeated to give the poet a moment to come up with a rhyming response. There you have the blues stanza.

The elements of the Blues Stanza are:

  1. stanzaic, written in any number of triplets.
  2. accentual verse with 4 to 6 stresses a line, or whatever. The syllable count is 12 or close enough. You can see, there is lots of room to wiggle here. The meter changes to iambic pentameter when the stanza is used in the Blues Sonnet.
  3. structured. L1 makes a statement, L2 repeats L1 with minor variation, often a beat or two short, and L3 responds, with a "climatic parallel" to the first 2 lines. (a culminating contrast or extension of the statement) In effect you are writing a rhyming coupletposing as a triplet.
  4. rhymed, rhyme scheme aaa, bbb, ccc, ddd.
  5. adapted by some poets like Hughes to break the lines roughly in half, making a six line stanza.
  6. infused with a theme that comes from complaint or a lament, suffering, struggle, real life experiences. It meets life head on, no nonsense, often with sarcasm and with humor, a wisdom born from pain.
  7. borrowed from blues singing, making up the "lyrics on the fly".

    I'm goin' down to de railroad, baby,
    ----------------------------------Lay ma head on de track.
    I'm goin' down to de railroad, babe,
    ----------------------------------Lay ma head on de track -
    But if I see de train a-comin',
    ---------------------------- I'm gonna jerk it back.
    ------------------------ Langston Hughes in The Big Sea

    Burn Out Blues by Judi Van Gorder

    The sun on Sunday morning calls, come and play.
    the morning's sun calls, come out and play,
    but first, I have a Sunday duty to pay.

    But that sun sure tempts me to skip and stray,
    yes I sure am tempted to skip and stray,
    why am I bound to fit church in my day?

    Hard part is, I believe it's the right thing to do,
    it's hard, but believe it's the right thing to do,
    I've lived it, I've taught it and loved it too.

    Still I don't want to sit through a ritual mass,
    no, don't want to sit through a long boring mass,
    would rather be sunning, bare toes in the grass

    I doddle and fiddle and arrive at mass late,
    messing around, slip in the door late,
    so I stand in the back and kneel on the slate.

    The gospel is one that I don't want to hear,
    the news is something I don't want to hear,
    but I know the message is meant for my ear.

    "Do you love me?" He asks, "then tend my flock",
    He asks it twice more, "then tend my flock",
    I've done that for years, Lord, we need to talk.

    I'll ponder His words and write out my thought,
    still pondering His word and writing my thought,
    there's more in His message, more to the plot

    So I've gone to church, and now have my day,
    gone to church and He gave me my day,
    but also a message I need to weigh.

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