When people talk about the blues they usually think about it as a complaint or a moan. But actually it’s a survival mechanism. It’s there so you don’t blow your top and turn to something worse. You need to get it out. And you also need to have people who feel sympathetic listening to it and hearing.
Generally, the blues and blues poetry has had a “male voice,” a male point of view. Langston Hughes and the other poets of the Harlem Renaissance were wonderful at using the blues form—which traces back to slavery, to the songs, rhythms and storytelling brought over from Africa—to talk about the interior life of African Americans in America. So we have wonderful poems about street life and the dealings between men and women and how it feels to be alive. With Honorée Jeffers’ poetry (an example below) we hear the woman’s story, a whole new twist on what the blues is supposed to be about. She adds to that tradition, is deeply in it, but not bound by it.
The award-winning blues poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers gave a reading at Notre Dame on January 23. Cornelius Eady, director of Notre Dame’s Creative Writing Program and Jeffers’ mentor, introduced his onetime student at the event. An associate professor of English at the University of Oklahoma, Jeffers is the author of two highly acclaimed collections of poetry, Outlandish Blues and The Gospel of Barbecue. Hear audio of the reading.
Worn Blues Refrain
My father danced on Saturday mornings,
turned his fat professor’s legs the wrong way.
No rhythm self, tripping over Mama’s corns,
his jitterbug like a worn blues refrain.
Then the afternoons, he sat himself down
to the piano, knee pants memories
of Louis and his trumpet come to town.
Louis didn’t crack a smile. Don’t believe?
Want to dispute it? Dad didn’t think so
and commenced with Jelly Roll religion.
Those porcelain hours, demons stopped poking
my father. From someplace close he found love.
He got some rhythm when he played the blues,
hollered and touched us all without bruising.
— Honorée Fanonne Jeffers