chorale (kōrăl´, –räl´), any of the traditional hymns of the German Protestant Church. The form was developed after the Reformation to replace the plainsong of the earlier service and as a means of congregational participation in the liturgy. Early chorales were mainly translations of Latin hymns set to folksong melodies. The chorale is strophic, written in simple language, and has a simple melody, but its phrasing and metrical structure are less regular than those of the English hymn. J. S. Bach reworked nearly 400 existing chorales and composed 30 new ones.
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cho·rale / kəˈral; -ˈräl/ • n. 1. a musical composition (or part of one) consisting of or resembling a harmonized version of a simple, stately hymn tune. 2. a choir or choral society.
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In his third collection of poetry, Jelly Roll: A Blues (2003), Kevin Young presents the reader with verses drawing first and foremost on the musical genre of the title and also on a wide variety of other historical genres. The titles of the poems themselves are the first indication of his inspirations: "Rhythm & Blues," "Early Blues," "Blues," and "Late Blues" affirm the collection's foundation; "Dixieland," "Ragtime," and "Boogie-Woogie" indicate that Young is wandering further afield while nevertheless remaining rooted in the blues tradition; and "Etude" (a composition with both technical and artistic merit), "Cantata" (a composition employing voices in various forms), and "Rhapsody" (an irregular, improvisational composition) offer evidence of the author's widespread understanding of the essence of music. Indeed, nearly all of the more than one hundred poems in the collection reverberate with musicality, with fifteen titles including the word song. The work's opening epigraph consists of fourteen lines of lyrics written by the blues guitarist Robert Johnson.
"Chorale" fits neatly into this musical framework. According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, a chorale is "a hymn or psalm sung to a traditional or composed melody in church." In appearing directly after the extended ruminations of "Sleepwalking Psalms" and a few poems before "Jubilee"—where the word jubilee has religious connotations both within the Roman Catholic Church and among African Americans regardless of denomination—"Chorale" can be seen as providing something of a core of spirituality within the collection as a whole.
Outside the literal context of its title, "Chorale" can be read as a lamentation of uncertainty. The narrator seems to question what the world has thus far given him and what he can reasonably expect from it in the future. The reader, in turn, wonders along with him. The poem is brief; it consists of eight couplets, or two-line stanzas, and a solitary closing line. In all, the poet uses only sixty-four words to communicate the essence of his train of thought, such that the reader must approach the poem with the utmost attention in attempting to grasp that essence.
Kevin Young was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, on November 8, 1970, although his family's roots lie in Louisiana, where his forefathers were preachers, musicians, and storytellers. His family moved six times before he reached the age of ten. After attending middle school and high school in Kansas, he earned admission to Harvard University, where he studied under the Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney. While he was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he joined a group called the Dark Room Collective, which offered support for black artists in various fields. After graduation, Young spent two years at Stanford University, in California, as a Stegner Fellow and then earned a master of fine arts degree from Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island.
Young's first book of poetry, Most Way Home (1995), was selected and published as part of the National Poetry Series and won the Zacharis First Book Award, presented by the literary journal Ploughshares and Emerson College. His second collection, To Repel Ghosts: Five Sides in B Minor, which he musically dubbed a "double album," was inspired by the art of the late Jean-Michel Basquiat, an African American. In association with this collection, Young contributed to an installation called Two Cents, featuring both Basquiat's art and his poetry, which toured across the nation. Young next produced the collections Jelly Roll: A Blues (2003), in which "Chorale" appears, and Black Maria (2005), his poetic interpretation of film noir. Young also has edited Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers (2001), Blues Poems (2003), and John Berryman: Selected Poems (2004) and has written a number of essays. He has served as professor at the University of Georgia, Indiana University, and Emory University.
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.]
Beyond the significance of the title, the first two lines of "Chorale" seem to make clear that it can be read in a religious context. The first line mentions "belief," while the second mentions "faith." Further, the reader can understand that this context has conflicting connotations for the narrator, as the "belief" is described as "difficult," the "faith" as "terrible." Still, while "terrible" is most commonly used in a strictly negative sense, the word can also be read, more neutrally, as indicating that something is "formidable," "awesome," or "great." Thus, the reader cannot necessarily conclude that the narrator has a negative opinion of faith. Notably, the first two lines feature the repetition of the opening word "quite."
Line 3, as a continuation of line 2, indicates that the narrator is not, after all, speaking of "faith" in a wholly generic sense, and indeed, the reader may need to move beyond a spiritual context in order to understand the poem. Lines 2 through 5, in their entirety, read as follows: "Quite terrible, faith / that the night, again, / will nominate / you a running mate." (Note that when reading the poem as a whole, so as to fully reveal its aesthetic, or artistic, value, substantial pauses might be given between lines and stanzas, in accordance with the format. In the course of interpretation, on the other hand, lines may be better read with attention given only to punctuation; as such, the meanings of individual phrases may be easier to determine.) In literal terms, this sentence has evident political overtones, endowing the thought with a certain dryness. Temporarily setting aside the word "again," the reader may understand that when the narrator refers to "faith / that the night … / will nominate / you a running mate," he may be referring to a romantic context. As such, instead of actually choosing his or her own "running mate," the person addressed by the narrator has that complementary person chosen by "the night," or by fate, or chance, alone. In that the poem's addressee may be convinced that this will happen "again," the reader may understand, perhaps, that the addressee has allowed random romantic pairings to occur on more than one occasion.
As indicated by the hyphen closing line 5, the phrase begun in line 6 is a second ending for the sentence started in line 2. As such, the lines might together read, "Quite terrible, faith / … / that we are of the elect / & have not yet / found out." Here again the narrator uses a word with political overtones, "elect." Within a religious context, on the other hand, the phrase "of the elect" can mean "chosen for salvation through divine mercy." Thus, the narrator is likely pointing out the "terribleness" of the conviction that two people, that is, the two people whom the night may choose as running mates, might be destined to be together, in a sort of heaven. These two people "have not yet / found out," of course, because they have not yet met each other. Throughout Jelly Roll, Young employs an ampersand in place of the word and, most likely simply to reduce the attention that would otherwise be given to the insignificant word. In recordings of his readings, Young indeed pronounces the ampersand more like "an" than "and."
- Video clips of Young reading several poems from Jelly Roll can be found on the Random House website, at http://www.randomhouse.com/knopf/authors/young/desktop.html.
- In an interview conducted by Renée Montagne, aired on National Public Radio's Morning Edition on March 3, 2005, and found online at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4520872, Young can be heard commenting on and reading from his 2005 collection, Black Maria.
The second half of line 8 again takes up the thread of the same phrase, although this time beginning a new sentence, one that will not turn out to be a complete sentence, confirming that this is another continuation of line 2. Here, the narrator once more uses a first-person plural pronoun; earlier he employed "we," and now he employs "us." He seems to be universalizing his meditations; that is, he is aware that many people may share his sentiments regarding the hope that a "running mate" might one day be fortuitously found. He indicates again the role that fate may play in this search, as we may hope that "the tide / still might toss us up / another," where the tide, as a force of nature, is certainly beyond any human being's control.
The second half of line 10, together with lines 11 and 12, seems to constitute a series of vague proclamations of the beauty of the "running mate" who might one day appear. Indeed, this unknown person is essentially featureless. The narrator refers to "eyes / & stars," perhaps juxtaposing the glowing orbs of a person's countenance with those of the sky, again invoking a grand image of nature. Also, as astrologers "read" the stars in considering the future, this reference may rouse further thoughts of fatefulness in the reader. In that the person in question consists only of eyes, teeth—both of which are white—and arms that are "alive," the reader may imagine this person in a shadowed context, such as, perhaps, a nightclub.
Lines 13 and 14 make further reference to the idealized future seen between these two people who have been brought together by chance, as the found person is described as "someone we will, all / night, keep." The final lines depart from the dreamy tone maintained by the majority of the poem, in a sense returning to the more negative connotations of the first two lines. The narrator makes reference to "spiders / that skitter," or move in a jerky way. These spiders, in addition to some unnamed thing, share his "shivering bed," which may be understood to be so, perhaps, because the narrator is usually cold there in his solitude. Whether the unnamed thing sharing the bed is another person—a person who does little to make it any warmer—the narrator's own fantasies, or some other object or idea entirely is unclear. Regardless, in that the spiders "cobweb," or make webs that lie unused and accumulate dust, the reader may attribute a certain stagnancy to the narrator's general state of existence.
While the title of this poem, "Chorale," can refer more generally to a chorus or choir, the word's origins are distinctly religious, and the scholarly Young, who attended several prestigious institutions of higher education, would certainly have given due consideration to this fact. Indeed, his opening references to "belief" and "faith" would seem to leave little doubt that the poem has a religious aspect. Beyond these opening lines, however, the only phrase with direct association with religion is "of the elect," which has connotations concerning the salvation of the soul. The reader might then consider the poem's spiritual aspects in a more general sense. The narrator certainly makes subtle references to fate, or predestination, which is often thought of in spiritual terms. Many religions hold that God has preordained all that will occur within his creation, and the narrator may be alluding to the presence of such a religious attitude in those who nevertheless imagine that "the night" may provide them with their predestined mates.
While a certain hope is evident throughout the poem, most pointedly in lines 10 through 12, with line 11 containing the poem's one exclamation point, the underlying sentiment seems to be one of sadness. The first two lines refer to this hope, or "faith," as "terrible," perhaps in that the narrator understands to a certain extent that his hopes, and indeed the hopes of many, are unfounded, unbearable, or unrealistic. After wandering through his hopeful ruminations, the narrator concludes with references to cobwebs, reflecting a reality undisturbed by mere hopes, and his "shivering" bed. In that the reader has no reason to believe that the narrator is incapable of retaining his physical warmth with, say, blankets, she can understand the implied coldness to be mental or emotional, such as the coldness caused by solitude, or, perhaps, by physical closeness to one with whom no emotional closeness exists.
Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines or clauses. In this poem, anaphora is used but twice. First, each of the first two lines begins with the word "quite." In that the construction appears at the beginning of this short poem, it helps set a tone that is maintained throughout. The words "difficult" and "terrible" are given particular attention and stress, and wherever the poem wanders thence, the reader does not forget that everything being described can essentially be modified with those two words. Indeed, the second example of anaphora is connected to the first: line 3, line 6, and the second half of line 8 all begin with the word "that," specifically because they are all describing things in which a certain "terrible" "faith" is held.
Topics For Further Study
- Young based his second collection of poetry, To Repel Ghosts, on the life and art of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Base your own work of art on Young's "Chorale." This work could be a painting of a scene from the poem (such as the narrator's "shivering bed"), a collage of the images found in the poem, or some other artistic presentation. As Young does not offer a wide variety of physical description, feel free to produce a work of art that provides an abstract interpretation of the poem.
- Write a poem of at least twenty lines in the style of "Chorale" on the subject of destiny. You may want to answer questions such as the following: Where do you think your life or the lives of others might lead, romantically or perhaps professionally? How much control will you have over the course of events that you will experience? Use metaphors to communicate your thoughts. Write your poem in couplets, with short lines, occasionally employing rhyme and rhythm. Read your poem aloud to the class, identifying afterward several locations where you believe the flow of your poem was musical.
- Choose and read two other poems from Young's collection Jelly Roll and two poems from one of his other collections. (All of these poems should be at least ten lines long.) In an essay, for each pair of poems consider the following questions: How are the two poems similar, and how are they different? How do the poems reflect the overall theme of the collection? Do you think that the presence of the theme makes the poems stronger or weaker? Then, for the two pairs of poems together, answer the following questions: What aspects of the poems suggest that they were all written by the same author? Do you prefer the poems from one collection over the poems from the other? Why or why not? Within your essay, comment on any other aspects of the poems you find deserving of comment.
- Research the history of the blues, focusing on its original development and also addressing its development throughout the twentieth century. Present your findings in an essay. At the conclusion of your essay, discuss how well you think Young has contributed to the history of the blues, through both his own collection Jelly Roll and the collection Blues Poems, which he edited.
Rhythm and Rhyme
As Young's collection is subtitled "A Blues," the reader would expect his poems to demonstrate a certain musicality. Here, this musicality is evident not in a structured meter maintained throughout the poem but in isolated incidences of rhythmicity and rhyme. The first two lines each open with a onesyllable word followed by a three-syllable word. In lines 4 and 5, the word "nominate" and the term "running mate" have the same pattern of syllable stress, in addition to rhyming. In lines 7 and 8, on the other hand, the phrase "have not yet / found out" demands that the reader slow to a staccato thumping. Much of the following verse meanders without musicality, featuring only the distant rhymes of "teeth" and "keep," perhaps indicating the arrhythmic nature of the distant hopes being described. In the end, the reader is left with the mournful tapping out of the phrases "skitter & cobweb" and "shivering bed," featuring the double rhymes of "skitter" and "shiver" alongside "web" and "bed."
The structure of "Chorale" seems to be fairly unimportant with respect to the poem's overall meaning. The lines are presented in couplets, but beyond the first two lines, no couplet presents a single coherent thought. Punctuation appears at the ends of lines as often as in the middles. Further, the reader might consider that most of the poems in Jelly Roll feature precisely the same general format, with couplets running into one another and lines rarely longer than five words. As such, one might conclude that Young does not intend for the structure to have a substantial impact on the meaning of the poem. Indeed, in recordings of Young reading his poetry aloud, sometimes he pauses significantly between lines and stanzas and sometimes he does not. As such, he tends to place greater emphasis on each individual word, as one might expect in such a brief poem. His use of ampersands in place of the word and would seem to be further indication of his desire to waste as little space in his verse as possible.
The blues are considered by many to be the ultimate source of virtually all modern genres of music. From blues came jazz; from jazz came rock and roll. Hip-hop, rap, alternative rock, and so on can all be seen as sprouting from these original genres. The blues themselves originated in African American spirituals sung on plantations by laboring slaves, with the call-and-response format, employed both vocally and instrumentally, evincing the genre's roots in West African music in particular. The blues, specifically, are held to have come into existence in the early twentieth century, with W. C. Handy playing one of the most significant roles. Robert Johnson, who is quoted in the opening epigraph of Young's collection, is generally credited with standardizing the twelve-bar blues, a term that refers to a certain style of chord progression.
In an interview for Bold Type, Young remarks, "The blues aren't just important musically, their attitude I think tells us so much about how black folks viewed the world and remade it, made it swing." With respect to his own appreciation for the blues, he adds, "I listen to the blues to feel better, not worse—it transforms us as listeners, takes our troubles away not by pretending they don't exist (like much other early pop music) but by naming them." Finally, with respect to his collection Jelly Roll: A Blues—where Jelly Roll Morton was a pioneer jazz musician, with one of his tunes titled "Jelly Roll Blues"—Young notes, "I was trying to get at not strictly the repeating form of the blues (though sometimes that too) but its tragicomic spirit." On PoetryNet, he further comments, "You could say the poems seek to 'finger the jagged grain' (as [the novelist] Ralph Ellison described the blues), turning pain into performance and danger into humor." Thus, Young has attempted to translate the musical form of the blues into a poetic form, much in the way that artists like Langston Hughes wrote poems meant to convey the feel and spirit of jazz.
The Black Arts Movement
The Black Arts movement is considered the cultural extension of the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s. During this time period, a number of publishing houses and periodicals, under black ownership, assisted in the greatly increased production of literature and poetry by black authors. In association with the often militant Black Power movement, which opposed many forms of integration as disguised methods of assimilating blacks into white culture, Black Arts writers did not feel compelled to produce work that harmonized with the preexisting canon of works by white writers. Similarly, writers of this era did not shy away from making political statements that might otherwise have been seen as detrimental, in preventing the authors in question from being fully accepted by white society. In this cultural context arose the proliferation of poetry that drew on the distinctly African American musical form of jazz. In fully embracing his own cultural context, as well as that of his ancestors, Young can be seen as echoing the heralding cries of his literary predecessors.
In his introduction to the anthology Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers (2000), which he edited, Young makes reference to "the post-soul writer." The term post-soul was coined by the writer and filmmaker Nelson George to describe the black world that came into existence after the "soul power" advances of the 1960s. Young writes, "Just as previous generations made a way of no way, forging not just themselves but a brilliant array of opportunities for us to occupy, we are taking culture, both black and popular, and attempting to make it sing." In summing up the significance of various African American movements, Young notes, "Soul, another parallel to Black Arts, for me also parallels, if not creates, the rise of a black popular culture." Thus, post-soul writers are sustaining the outspoken tradition fostered by their foremothers and forefathers, asserting that black literature and arts constitute not just an extension of American cultural traditions but a permanent cultural tradition in and of themselves.
With respect to Jelly Roll, critics have almost universally lauded Young's ability to absorb the reader in the rhythmic flow of his writing. In the Hudson Review, Mark Jarman declares, "Young makes a supple, changeable music out of the marriage of dialect and standard English." Jarman presents a sample of Young's verse and then adds, "You can hear the sound of this voice alive on the vivid page. That's poetry." In classifying the verse in Jelly Roll as among the best poetry of 2003 in Library Journal, Barbara Hoffert notes, "Young struts his stuff with verve, tossing us off-kilter lines with a sort of insouciant melancholy. He'll get under your skin." In Black Issues Book Review, Dike Okoro observes, "The jazzy swagger and the quirky syntax (and the omnipresent long dash) marry to produce a dizzying flow."
Still, some reviewers have found Young's linguistic presentation disagreeable. In Poetry, Brian Phillips makes reference to the fact that Young was educated at Harvard and questions the veracity of his poetic voice. He contends that, at times, "dialect simply pinch-hits for poetic effort." Phillips presents lines from "Disaster Movie Theme Music," found in Jelly Roll, which include the phrases "mom'n thems" and "Heard tell you / were a-ready lost" and remarks, "Surely this is imitation, mere strategic typography: this is not Young's voice." Interestingly, with respect to the same passage, Mark Jarman remarks, "I may have been living in the South too long, but to my ear 'mom'n thems' is just right." Thus, perhaps each individual reader must decide for herself whether Young's use of dialect is effective.
Okoro and Phillips question whether Young's blues framework is used successfully. Okoro states, "His wit, an essential ingredient in the blues, is at times awkwardly employed," such that "the reader's faith in the authentic sentiment of the poems might be undermined." Phillips notes,
The need to engraft an approved cultural paradigm onto the expression of one's experience in art is dangerous to a lyric poet. The danger is that it will excuse the kind of aesthetic laziness … in which one writes down to the "authenticity" of a tradition one is intellectually or experientially beyond.
Indeed, Phillips believes that Young can fulfill his amply evident promise as a poet only by forgoing his reliance, however intellectually sound, on established African American forms.
Overall, regardless of their opinions of Young's use of dialect and his overarching construct, reviewers have tended to see and admire the sizable heart from which his poems have issued forth. In Library Journal, Fred Muratori asserts that Young manages "to explore the hazardous dimensions of emotional commitment with gritty grace and disarming candor." Similarly, a Publishers Weekly reviewer states, "The verse here shows Young to be not only a terrific love poet but one of real emotional variety." In closing, the reviewer notes, "Young has daringly likened himself in earlier poems and prose to Langston Hughes: this versatile tour de force may well justify the ambitious comparison."
Michael Allen Holmes
Holmes is a freelance writer and editor. In this essay, he considers the intersection of romance and religion in "Chorale" and other poems in Young's Jelly Roll: A Blues.
The opening lines of "Chorale"—"Quite difficult, belief / Quite terrible, faith"—are undeniably striking. The anaphoric use of the adverb "quite" immediately focuses the reader's attention on the seemingly negative adjectives that follow, "difficult" and "terrible," and throughout the rest of the brief poem the echo of those words is felt, if not actually heard, in the mind of the reader. As for the nouns that close these two lines, "belief" and "faith," either alone might bear various meanings, but in concert they certainly conjure thoughts of religiousness and spirituality. Indeed, a chorale is a churchly hymn or song; thus, the theme of the poem would seem to be concretized. Yet, beyond a later mention of "the elect," which can be understood as referring to "those divinely chosen for salvation," the theme of religion seems to be thence cast aside in favor of meditations on the possibility of predestined romance. Rather than dismissing the originally understood theme, however, the reader might consider what can be found at the intersection of the two substantial issues of religion and romance.
In fact, that intersection is prominent in a number of poems in Young's Jelly Roll. In "Sleepwalking Psalms," an extended lamentation on the departure of a loved one (which immediately precedes "Chorale"), Young offers the following: "There are no more saints—/ only people with pain / who want someone to blame. / Or praise." Here he may be contending that religion, particularly Christianity, is no longer primarily a moral system in which people transcend worldly concerns and disseminate positive energy through acts of benevolence, such as with, say, Mother Teresa. Instead, religion has evolved into a framework of authority that allows individuals to absolve themselves of responsibility for whatever adversity, or even fortune, they have encountered by holding some god accountable instead. After commenting on these "people with pain," Young affirms, "I am one of them, of course." Two stanzas later, he refers to the woman who left him as being a "hairshirt," an uncomfortable garment worn by some Catholics to signify their penance. That is, perhaps he retains his torturous remembrances of this woman as a way of asserting to himself that God, or, essentially, the woman herself, has forsaken him; he, of course, cannot be blamed for this misfortune.
Similarly couched references to the religious aspect of romance are made in succeeding poems, beginning with "Torch Song" (which immediately follows "Chorale"): "The heaven of her / hips—over me, such sway—/ She got some saint / standing at the gate / keeping the crowds away." Thus, the woman in question is herself both heaven and the chief resident of heaven. The narrator then declares that he would build a church and "slave" away in his "Sunday best" just to see this woman, further equating her with God. The first lines of the next poem, "Fish Story," read, "For you I would give up / God—repeal / once & for all, unkneel." Thus, he is turning away from God and toward the woman. In "Jubilee," Young opens with "Sister, you are a late-night / preacher" and closes with "just don't leave me lone / like God / done, promising return."
Indeed, Young seems to have been, to a certain extent, abandoned by God. Illuminating thoughts on the fading importance of religion, especially among intellectuals—which Young should certainly be considered, as his multiple volumes of poetry and degrees from Harvard and Brown attest—can be found in The Future of an Illusion, by Sigmund Freud. Therein, Freud asserts that rational evidence for the existence of God is, in truth, utterly absent; all that can lead a rational person to believe in God, then, are the assertions of other persons, none of whom have had any more verifiable proof of God's existence than can be found in modern times. For the rationally grounded person, God must cease to exist. The closing lines of "Jubilee," cited earlier, would seem ample evidence that Young has found himself in this state of mind.
In Future, Freud also posits the reason that God was invented in the first place: "When the growing individual finds that he is destined to remain a child for ever, that he can never do without protection against strange superior powers, he lends those powers the features belonging to the figure of his father." Indeed, in ancient times, people had much to fear from nature, including droughts, deluges, and pestilence. In modern times, on the other hand, civilization, at least in America, has essentially subdued nature, to the extent that for most people fear of nature's power is not a driving psychological concern. Apart from such catastrophes as hurricanes and earthquakes, Americans, particularly those with ample wealth, are well insulated from the worst effects of weather, sickness, and other natural forces. Thus, protection is no longer an essential trait for a divine being. What, then, might God become? Freud reminds us who the original iconic figure is for all humans: "The mother, who satisfies the child's hunger, becomes its first love-object and certainly also its first protection against all the undefined dangers which threaten it in the external world." Only with the heightening of these external threats is the mother "replaced by the stronger father."
As such, for the modern male, who is quite possibly never confronted with external threats that can be warded off only by a powerful father figure, the mother retains her position of supremacy. In adulthood, of course, any male must inevitably renounce the worship of his own mother. Taking the mother's place, then, will be the object of his romantic affection, who may be a particular woman (considering heterosexuality in this argument, where a similar argument might be made regarding homosexuality), with whom he may or may not have already had a relationship or a romantic encounter, or perhaps in time an idealized woman, whom he will marry and with whom he will start a family.
Young leaves little doubt that he has often engaged in this type of romantic worship. In "Threnody," he remarks, presumably of a romantic interest, "Without you I got no one / to say sorry to." That is, he yearns for someone to bless him with forgiveness, as with Catholic confession. Freud asserts, "The superior wisdom which directs this course of things, the infinite goodness that expresses itself in it, the justice that achieves its aim in it—these are the attributes of the divine beings who also created us and the world as a whole." Young seems to hope that he will find this wisdom, goodness, and justice not in God, in whom he no longer believes, but in the woman who can forgive his sins.
"Chorale" epitomizes Young's worship of the woman. "Quite terrible" is his "faith" in finding this idealized woman, perhaps because he is on some level aware of the inauspicious nature of his idolatry. Indeed, in an ideal relationship, neither of the two individuals can have an idealized view of the other; rather, they must be equals. In "Chorale," the very forces of nature from which a father-figure god might have once offered Young protection have transformed into forces that he hopes will one day bring him his idealized other. These forces are represented here by "the night," or the unknown, and "the tide," or the elements. In his description of the future object of his affection, he can only vaguely state, "what eyes / & stars, what teeth! / such arms, alive," and indeed, one rarely assigns distinct physical features to an imagined god; rather, one will simply know this god when one sees him or her. Also, in mentioning "stars," Young again invokes the heavens in reference to a woman.
What Do I Read Next?
- Kevin Young's first collection, Most Way Home (1995), won the Zacharis First Book Award from the literary magazine Ploughshares and features a somewhat wider variety of form than is found in Jelly Roll.
- One of Young's favorite poetry collections is Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961), by the groundbreaking African American intellectual Langston Hughes.
- Another collection of poems admired by Young, especially in that it originally brought him to the realization that poetry could speak of the profoundly personal, is Rita Dove's Thomas and Beulah (1986).
- Young has been compared to the poet Yusef Komunyakaa. Komunyakaa's collection Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (1993) includes samplings from earlier works as well as original material and earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1994.
- Young has cited "Blues People: Negro Music in White America" (1963), by Imamu Amiri Baraka, who was originally named LeRoi Jones, as offering a good account of the social relevance of the blues.
Based on the contents of "Chorale," Young's state of mind is still in the course of a certain evolution. He recognizes that his trust in fate, and particularly in the coming of that one messianic woman who will prove to be his own personal object of worship, is "difficult"; he may prove able to bear his reliance on this essentially spiritual construct for only so long. It is unclear the degree to which his worship has progressed beyond that of a particular individual with whom he desires immediate physical contact to that of a woman, known or unknown, with whom he would wish to spend the rest of his life. The lines "someone we will, all / night, keep" might seem to suggest relatively shallow desires, but the tone of the poem appears to indicate that "all / night" is here intended to represent the rest of his life, that is, all night for every night to come. Having established himself as "a terrific love poet," as described by a Publishers Weekly reviewer, Young may find himself further conflicted when he next produces a volume of personal poetry. (His collection Black Maria, which followed Jelly Roll, is an interpretation of film noir and as such constitutes a more fictional approach to poetry.) Will he be true to whatever further mental and spiritual development he will have undergone, as one would expect such an intelligent man to undergo, or will he seek to recreate, or perhaps rechannel, the palpable heartache he once felt? The reader can only await.
Source: Michael Allen Holmes, Critical Essay on "Chorale," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
Hart is a published writer and former teacher. In this essay, she explores the mixture of religion, nature, politics, and the blues in Young's poem.
In the seventeen short lines of Young's poem "Chorale," the poet hints at several diverse topics, as he wends his way from beginning to end. In the first few lines, one might be led to believe that the poem is about religion or spirituality. The last line of the poem conjures up the emotional image of loneliness. Between the beginning and the end are allusions to politics and nature. In addition, the poem resonates with lyrics from a blues song, with its reference to lost or elusive love. It is as if the reader is traveling down an unknown waterway. Just when the reader thinks that he or she has grasped the intent of the poet, the poem rounds yet another bend in the river.
Young's poem begins, in its very title, with a sense of religion. A chorale is a religious hymn sung to a melody. The religious rebel Martin Luther is credited with creating the first chorales, which were sung by his congregations. Later, Johann Sebastian Bach added harmonies to the simple musical lines of religious chorales. Basically, however, chorales were written in uncomplicated, rhyming lines for ordinary people to sing. Although there is no rhyming in Young's "Chorale," the surface simplicity of the stanzas are reflective of the original Lutheran church songs.
In the first two lines of the poem, Young mentions both "belief" and "faith." Although these words can be used in a secular context, it is quite common for most people to first react to them with the understanding that they are imbued with either a spiritual or a religious connotation. If someone were to ask a person, "What is your faith?" most people would reply by naming their affiliation with a church or a spiritual practice. Young sets his readers up to assume this religious attitude by combining a religiously inclined title with a spiritually inclined first two lines. So begins a somewhat bewildering journey through Young's poem.
If the reader looks back at the first two lines, after realizing that this is not really a poem about spirituality, the words take on a different meaning. "Belief" and "faith" could, after all, be references to something more generic, as one would find in such aphorisms as "love conquers all." These types of beliefs can indeed be "quite difficult" if circumstances prove that all is not conquered by love after all. Having faith in someone who is not worthy of one's trust can be "quite terrible." With the opening lines, then, the poet could be reflecting on a sad ending to a relationship, one in which he had, at some time, great faith and belief. Remembering his faith and belief in his former lover could very well now be extremely difficult and terrible to bear.
In the third line, the poet continues with his thoughts on faith. The speaker of this poem refers to faith in reference to "the night," which is imbued with a sense of power: "the night, again, / will nominate." One might question whether the word "night" suggests a god or some other strong spiritual influence. There is also an overtone of religion in the third stanza (line 6) with the term "elect." Those of the Puritan faith used the term elect to differentiate people who had been predestined for salvation from those who were not so chosen and could never receive God's grace. At the same time that the poet hints at religion with the word "elect," he also begins to lean toward more political language with the phrase "will nominate / you a running mate." In this context, "elect" sounds more like a reference to a political campaign. Here the poem takes on simultaneous religious and political overtones. The word "again" indicates repetition, as if the night has done this before or will continue to do this later. The use of the word "again" becomes more significant in the context of lines 13 and 14: "someone we will, all / night, keep." In these later lines, another "running mate" has entered the picture, one tossed up by the tide and one that will be kept through the night.
It is important to dwell on what the poet means with his statement that the "night" nominates "a running mate." Perhaps this "you" has been nominated as the speaker's running mate. Or perhaps the night nominated someone else to be the running mate for the person who is referred to as "you." "You" might be the speaker or the friend or lover of the speaker. In line 6, the speaker uses the first-person plural pronoun "we." "We" suggests unity, which could mean that the "you" is the running mate of the speaker. "We are of the elect," the speaker says. Since this poem is about love, the speaker could be trying to describe what it feels like when two people fall in love. When connections are made between two people through love, the lovers might feel that they have become two of God's chosen people (thus, the elect). They are so happy that they might believe that they have been blessed, or anointed.
None of this is entirely clear, not even for the speaker of this poem. There is confusion in lines 7 and 8. Although there is the possibility, as the speaker states, that these two lovers have been nominated to the elect, they "have not yet / found out." They are as yet unaware of this blessing. From this point in the poem, things seem to fall apart, as if the lovers' lack of awareness implies an impairment of their vision. This is where nature makes a strong appearance in the poem. Like "the night" before it (in line 3), "the tide" (in line 8) now has power over the lovers. The tide "might toss us up / another." It is not until lines 13 and 14, however, that the reader knows what the tide has tossed up: "someone we will, all / night, keep." It is curious to note that the poet again uses the first-person plural pronoun (we) in these lines, but this time the feeling of unity is not as strong. Rather, it seems as if the lovers are no longer together or else that their previous union is beginning to crumble—someone has come between them. The tide is challenging the lovers. There is someone new in their midst that one of them will "all / night, keep." The last line implies that the speaker has been left out in the cold.
It is in the last lines of this poem that a true sense of the blues comes in. The speaker is lonely and sad, a typical theme of the blues. The running mate is not present. The speaker is left to ruminate about the past, as he looks around his room and notices only the spiders and the cobwebs. Spiders, like the tide, are part of nature, but there are few people who can think of spiders without feeling skittish. The image of spiders might have been chosen as a metaphor for the speaker's discomfort. Spiders in one's bed do not conjure up images of a good night's sleep. The presence of cobwebs indicates a space that has accumulated dust and dirt, a place that has not seen much movement. The untidy bed in what seems to be a close room not entered by anyone but the speaker might portray a sense of the speaker's depression. If spiders and cobwebs were not enough to make readers grasp the speaker's emotions, the last line of the poem makes matters clear. The spiders share the speaker's "shivering bed." He might be pleading for some unknown person to share his lonely bed as well, but a shivering bed is not very inviting.
These last images accurately portray the distraught feelings and loneliness of the speaker. They are also capable of eliciting the sympathy of readers. But they do not beckon; they do not entice. They fend off, as if the speaker is mournfully singing his blues while signaling that he does not want anyone to come too close. The speaker might be so lost in his journey that he is not yet ready to step out of the boat that is carrying him down the river of the blues.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on "Chorale," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
Bussey is an independent writer specializing in literature. In this essay, she explores the relevance of musical form and content in Young's "Chorale."
Young's 2003 poetry collection, Jelly Roll: A Blues, showcases the poet's particular expertise in music as it relates to poetry. Although the poems include a wide range of subjects and tones, they are held together by the influence of American music. Young's comfort with the form is evident in the intimacy of his poems and his willingness to explore personal and sometimes painful musings. In "Chorale," he expresses loneliness and hope within the twin contexts of blues music and the chorale. These two musical forms are very different, yet the poem is cohesive and the voice sympathetic. Somehow, Young draws on these disparate musical influences in a way that works for the poem. The collection Jelly Roll bears the subtitle A Blues. It is fair, then, to read the poems Young chose to include in the collection with the blues in mind. Young is known for his deep interest in African American history and music (especially the blues) and for finding poetic inspiration in those studies. His writing participates in and continues the history, tradition, and culture of African Americans, but he brings to his work contemporary style and settings. Young's expertise in blues lyrics qualified him to edit Blues Poems, an anthology of poetry by great blues musicians, such as Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, alongside the poetry of poets inspired by blues music, such as Langston Hughes and W. H. Auden. All of this biographical context points to how deeply blues music influences Young's individual voice and how natural it is that he should use it as a context for an entire collection of poetry.
Blues, like jazz, is a distinctly American style of music. A shortened version of the "blue devils," blues refers to experiencing hard times and feeling low. The music grew out of African American spirituals, chants, and work songs. It is characterized by "blue notes," specific musical notes that set an emotional tone, and "call-and-response" patterns in the lyrics. Call-and-response is intended to mirror everyday communication in that it uses phrases that seem to suggest a dialogue and build a narrative. This type of communication is common in West African communities that use call-and-response formally in everything from political participation to religion and music. The roots of call-and-response run deep, and Young knows very well how significant this pattern is to African American culture. In "Chorale," Young suggests this pattern in the particular way he uses anastrophe, or the inversion of the usual order of words in a sentence to build a particular effect. Anastrophe is evident in the first two lines of the poem and again in line 12. Young takes unified thoughts and breaks them into two separate utterances. In the first line, for example, instead of writing, "Belief is quite difficult," he writes, "Quite difficult, belief." The word "belief" seems to answer the question of what is difficult. It is a subtle form of call-and-response.
The first two lines also demonstrate how "Chorale" is consistent with blues from a content perspective. Blues is often about struggles, love problems, oppression and hopelessness, and feeling vulnerable to greater or more powerful forces. Blues music also carries a strong narrative element, so that a blues song tells a story that often explains the singer's plight. The song itself seems to arise from the singer's need to tell his or her sad story, and the listener is moved to sympathize with the singer. In "Chorale," Young borrows heavily from the tradition of blues content. The poem is about loneliness, as the speaker describes in the last three lines, "just these spiders / that skitter & cobweb, / share my shivering bed." He is alone with spiders and cobwebs, and his bed is both literally and figuratively cold. Although the crux of the poem is that the "tide" will probably "toss up" someone whom the speaker can keep "all night," he does not speak of true love, and the notion of hope is both difficult and terrifying (according to the first two lines of the poem). The little hope the speaker has seems to be merely for a respite from his loneliness, but not a love relationship that would actually banish it.
The speaker's sense of powerlessness is also consistent with the blues point of view. He does not feel the least bit in control of his love life but is instead subject to the whims of "the night" that will choose a "running mate" for him. His only choice is seemingly to wait and see who this person will be. He writes that "we are of the elect / & have not yet / found out." The tide, without his agency, might "toss up / another." This is a very fatalistic view of love, in which the speaker is really nothing but a pawn of fate; he never even considers claiming authority over his own love relationships. Blues often laments powerlessness and oppression, and here Young borrows that theme to describe the speaker's view of love.
Still, Young named the poem "Chorale." In many ways, the chorale stands in stark contrast to blues music, yet Young's poem joins the two in a unified and meaningful way. Despite the disparate influences of the chorale and blues, the poem is better for having them both. While blues is distinctly American and secular, the chorale has its roots in European religious music. Traditionally, a chorale was a hymn sung by an entire Lutheran congregation. That it was a hymn means it was intended to be a form of worship or to teach theological truths. What is important for Young's poem, however, is that it was sung by the entire congregation. It was intended as a group, or universal, expression. Thus, the feelings described by the poem's speaker are part of the common human experience. The speaker becomes not just a single person alone in bed at night but, in fact, anyone who has ever felt alone. Indeed, the speaker becomes the reader, and the reader identifies with the struggles the speaker faces.
In form, the chorale is very different from Young's poem. Traditional chorales were subject to rather specific criteria, such as rhyming lines, simple melodies, and certain stanzaic conventions. Young's poem is written in free-verse couplets with heavy use of enjambment. In enjambment, a phrase or sentence runs over from one line of verse to the next, splitting closely related words and sometimes forming two distinct thoughts. While chorales were formal, "Chorale" is very natural and loose in its rhythms. It is fair to draw the conclusion, then, that Young wants the reader to focus more on the collective nature of the chorale's presentation than on the rigors of the form.
Combing the different forms of the blues and the chorale, Young creates a poem that holds together well. Both forms—blues and the chorale—arose from human experience and the need for self-expression. Whether in Europe hundreds of years ago or in America in the early twentieth century, people have always felt drawn to music as an outlet for expression. While the chorale and blues are very different musical forms, they both encompass a wide range of expression that can overlap. In "Chorale," Young finds the area where the forms converge, without forcing them to work together. Ultimately, the poem works because the speaker's feelings and language patterns arise from blues and the universality of experience arises from the chorale. The poem is a sophisticated blend of styles, but the style does not detract from the speaker's central expression of loneliness with slight hope in fate.
Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on "Chorale," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
In the following review, Palattella examines Jelly Roll in the context of several of Young's books, calling his language "clunky" and "careless" and faulting his bad puns.
Five years ago an enterprising poet named Kevin Young edited an anthology called Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers, which he packed with impressive work by writers such as Hilton Als, Edwidge Danticat and Joe Wood. Young wanted to update The New Negro anthology, that touchstone of the Harlem Renaissance, for the hip-hop generation, and he undertook the project in a spirit of reverence. "I see it as the writer's job, especially the African-American writer's job, not to 'kill the literary father' but rather to celebrate our ancestry," he explained in the book's introduction. It's understandable that Young would not want to look back to the past in anger since, for African-American writers, killing the literary father has often meant getting tangled up in fights over the proper way to "represent the race" (think of James Baldwin's attacks on Richard Wright in "Everybody's Protest Novel" and "Many Thousands Gone"). Young's decision to avoid the zero-sum game of patricide, then, is as much political as aesthetic. In a "post-soul society," Young explains in Giant Steps, "the essentialist and often easy answers to questions of race—which have never been easy; just ask Bert Williams or Paul Robeson or Josephine Baker or Muhammad (Ali, that is)—are as complicated as ever. In recognizing the diversity of 'the black experience,' the poets here ask: Where do Shaft and Langston Hughes meet?"
That's a good question, and it raises another: Can Shaft and Langston Hughes be made to meet? In other words, how can Young talk about celebrating one's entire ancestry—let alone knowing it—without resorting to empty provocation? That's not an unreasonable question, especially since Young knows better. His first book of poems, Most Way Home, is an unsentimental portrait of postwar life in the Deep South. A key poem is "The Preserving," and while it concerns the seasonal ritual of canning, it also delicately evokes the complex chemistry involved in any act of preservation:
One Thanksgiving, while saying grace
we heard what sounded like a gunshot
ran to the back porch to see
peach glass everywhere. Reckon
someone didn't give the jar enough
room to breathe.
Young's work as a preservationist has garnered much critical acclaim. In 1993 Most Way Home was selected by Lucille Clifton for publication as part of the National Poetry Series. To Repel Ghosts, a manic epic about the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, appeared in 2001 and was named a finalist for the James McLaughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Two years later Young published Jelly Roll, a blues-tinged breakup book that was a finalist for the National Book Award—and his first book with a big trade press. It also landed Young on the cover of Poets & Writers, which published a profile of him by Colson Whitehead, a contributor to Giant Steps.
Young's new book, Black Maria, tells another breakup story in verse, this time by reverentially drawing on the wiseguy tones and bleak settings of film noir. But Young's homage to film noir doesn't translate into good poetry. Black Maria is a bland mannerist exercise—a remade ready-made. Reading the book, one can't help but wonder if Young's preservationist impulse has spoiled his poetry, and whether the only way for him to reinvigorate his art would be to pack his jars so they explode.
Young's first two books revealed a poet of talent and ambition, though not in the same proportion. Most Way Home, which Young wrote when he was an undergraduate, is a short, sturdy collection of lyric poems loosely based on stories passed along by Young's Louisiana relatives. First books by young poets can be dreary, especially if they focus on deceased kin. Usually the poet zeroes in on a fetish object (such as Grandpa's photo album), swaddling it in layers of ambivalent nostalgia and relinquishing it after experiencing a tiny epiphany. Young mostly avoided this trap by writing a personal history that is not explicitly autobiographical. Inspired by Rita Dove's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poems Thomas and Beulah (1986), in which Dove uses the lives of her grandparents to dramatize the midcentury northern migration of American blacks, Young uses family anecdotes to flesh out a history of deprivation and endurance in the Jim Crow South. Like Dove, Young focuses on the underside of history, the dramas of everyday people circumscribed by big events. The subjects of Most Way Home are generic—the seasons, sickness, death—and Young kindles them to life by using the elliptical resources of lyric poetry to score the clipped rhythms of vernacular speech:
Broke as we were, we didn't need
fixing. But that autumn the men
weighed down our porch, sweating
in their suits, hats-in-hand,
To Repel Ghosts seems like an entirely different kind of book. More than 300 pages long and comprising five sections organized as "album sides," it left behind the shotgun houses and mason jars of the postwar Louisiana countryside for the grubby lofts and cocaine-fueled parties of the New York City art world of the 1980s. The inspiration of To Repel Ghosts is Jean-Michel Basquiat, a protean figure of that era's downtown punk and art scenes. Born in Brooklyn in 1960 to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother and dubbed "The Radiant Child" by Rene Ricard in Artforum in 1981, Basquiat painted huge, color-drenched canvases that, at their best, blended contradictory styles and elements—primitive and urbane, image and text—to generate an insouciant pop energy. That energy continues to mesmerize young artists, especially black ones. In his profile of Young, Colson Whitehead recalls lifting some text from a Basquiat painting—PAY FOR SOUP/BUILD A FORT/SET THAT ON FIRE,—and putting it in his first attempt at a novel "as some graffiti on a wall, but it was so much better than anything else in the book that I had to take it out." Young and Whitehead share more than admiration for Basquiat. Like John Henry, the nineteenth-century steel driver whose legend is the center of Whitehead's novel John Henry Days, Basquiat functions not as a character as much as a medium, one through which Young draws the lives of other African-American artists (Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Robert Johnson) into a shattered mural of twentieth-century American life.
Yet for all its narrative sprawl, To Repel Ghosts closely follows the plot of Most Way Home, telling the story of fugitives trying to wrest a sense of place and dignity from a hostile world. The up-from-Jim-Crow story told in Most Way Home is framed by the lyric "Reward," a description of two runaway slaves. In the opening pages of To Repel Ghosts, we find Jean-Michel Basquiat moving out of his parents' Brooklyn apartment, wallpapering lower Manhattan with graffiti and painting in a dingy basement, which, as Young writes in the book's first poem, Andy Warhol called "a nigger's loft—/not The Factory." Elsewhere Young lambastes art-world glitterati for romanticizing Basquiat as a black primitive: "Intro'd/from the dark/continent—African//Killer B—deadly—" begins "The Pictures," an attack on Julian Schnabel's biopic Basquiat.
Young, however, has no qualms about romanticizing Basquiat himself. The second "album side" features a profile of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world and one of several famous black athletes painted by Basquiat. Young uses the Johnson profile to suggest that the painter admired the boxer because he too was a black man who fought epic battles on canvas. Curiously, while Young portrays Johnson with a series of vivid monologues that convey the boxer's wit, tenderness and pride, none of the poems that focus on Basquiat are monologues; they are all third-person affairs. This could be construed as a commentary on Basquiat's elusiveness, but Young's representation of the painter suggests otherwise. As To Repel Ghosts wears on, Basquiat is depicted as a victim of menacing forces (the white, decadent art world) and toxic habits (heroin), and in their grip his life becomes a slow-motion death. Young's Basquiat has no inner demons, let alone interiority, which allows Young to install Basquiat in a romantic pantheon of doped-up hipster superheroes. With Young's reverence of Basquiat comes a lack of curiosity that sometimes reduces the painter to a cliché of degradation.
Still, Young has a keen appreciation of Basquiat's chatty, wry and even cynically neo-primitivist style. Young abandons the colloquial rhythms of Most Way Home for tercets made from very short, unrhymed lines that gain an elastic power from being heavily enjambed. Each tercet is a cluster of syncopated phrases that snap past the reader, and as the sounds and images of the tercets tumble together and fly apart, it's as though Young had become locked in a battle royal with Basquiat's busy paintings. From "Defacement (1983)":
& scribbles, clots
wall of Keith Haring's
Cable Building studio—
two cops, keystoned,
pounding a beat,
a black face-scape
Young's tercets aren't consistently lively. Some of his poems have monotonous rhythms, while others are overstuffed with details of Basquiat's life. More debilitating are Young's strained attempts to be witty: "Put out/to pasteur—/Quart cartons//of lost children." This is the sound of a poet growing too pleased with his own words.
"There's always something a little funny in all our disasters," James Baldwin once said, "if one can face the disaster." In To Repel Ghosts, Young's romanticization of Basquiat short-circuits a serious reckoning with the wreckage of the painter's life. The kind of lackluster wordplay that mars parts of To Repel Ghosts is very prominent in Jelly Roll, and instead of focusing on the face of disaster, this sloppy language obscures it. The book is filled with lukewarm puns—"Hottentot to trot//you are not"—and clunky metaphors: "You burn me/at both ends, send//the geese bumping/within my skin."
Even when Young is not trying to be cunning, his language is often careless. "Intermezzo" begins: "Lately I head down/to the river//& watch what washes/past: garbage//boats, tugs, occasional/sail." To say that boats and tugs wash by is not an impossible usage, but in "Intermezzo" it is not apt. The image of garbage washing past makes sense, but how, in that context, can a boat wash past? It's unclear whether this peculiar usage reflects the state of mind of the speaker, who is sorting through a breakup. If the word choice is a sign of the speaker's emotional confusion, then why is the language in the rest of the poem unambiguous?
The blues aren't existential in Jelly Roll. Instead of plumbing the tension between the sting of disaster and its solace, many poems in Jelly Roll play vamp at the blues. Here's "Cheer," which appears just after the speaker has thrown himself into a passionate affair with a woman:
back door man
little porch light on
Like the poem's speaker, Young's language cries, Look at me, look at me.
Black Maria is an even more disappointing production than Jelly Roll. In five sections of lyric poems called "reels," Young tells the noir-inflected saga of A.K.A. Jones, a private dick who drinks and smokes his way through the mazes of a city called Shadowtown in pursuit of an ingenue named Delilah Redbone, a country girl who has moved to the city to sing her way to fame and fortune. As Jones and Redbone elude, seduce and betray each other, they cross paths with a cast of noir types: the Killer, the Boss, the Snitch, the McGuffin.
It's no surprise that Young has gravitated to noir, since the genre can accommodate his passion for pop culture and the blues story of romance and betrayal. But by choosing noir Young has also set himself a tough challenge. Whether they are pop songs or detective flicks, genre productions stand or fall on their style. Because its plot twists, situations and character types are terribly familiar, a genre piece is engrossing only if its style has pungency and vitality, evidence that the writer has temporarily transmuted a genre into his or her own way of thinking.
Young doesn't meet that challenge, and one stumbling point is the plot of Black Maria. Filled with wild tangents and shifts in point of view, the narrative is fractured and confusing, a state of affairs meant to echo a bewildering noir story such as The Big Sleep. But unlike that film, Black Maria isn't intriguing. Young tries to repair this problem by beginning each "reel" with an epigraph and voiceover that summarize the section's plot, but that device only compounds the book's fractures.
Another weakness is the book's language. Jones's and Redbone's fast-talking monologues are derailed by the same kind of bad puns that fill Jelly Roll. "Slant hat, broad/back, my entrenched coat//of fog" is how Jones describes himself when Redbone first saunters into his office. Black Maria isn't without a few cutting lines—at one point a jealous Jones mutters, "She made her bed/now everyone lies in it"—but such witty moments can't carry the book.
As with Jelly Roll, the longueurs of Black Maria aren't necessarily the result of carelessness. Rather, they signal that Young's preoccupation with looking back in reverence has become paralyzing instead of fructifying. In a sense, each of Young's four poetry collections has been a debut book, with the poet venerating a genre (family melodram a, the blues, film noir) or an iconic personality (Basquiat) steeped in cultural history. Basquiat himself painted tributes to jazz musicians and other black figures, but in those portraits he also treated his subjects ironically. He knew that the difference between reference and reverence amounts to more than one consonant, which is why his romps through various styles and genres were more antic than innocuous. Kevin Young grasped that lesson in To Repel Ghosts, even if he didn't perfect it. The only mystery left unsolved in Black Maria is why he has forgotten it.
Source: John Palattella, Review of Jelly Roll: A Blues, in Nation, Vol. 280, No. 18, May 9, 2005, pp. 28-31.
In the following review, Phillips calls into question Young's easy, fanlike devotion to blues music in these poems and faults him for overuse of slang but praises his "gift for wordplay" and ear for sound.
The subtitle of this plump and play-acting new book declares it A Blues, "composed and arranged" (as we learn on the title page) "by Kevin Young." There is a long epigraph from Robert Johnson's "Kind-Hearted Woman Blues," next to which a picture of Johnson's head has been left jauntily floating, a piece of unhallowed clip-art. Thus the book declares its fidelity to the tradition of the blues. But through 190 pages, these poems are rarely more than a fan's eager notes, a sophisticate's predilections.
On the page Young's poems look minimal, thin couplets in a field of white space, but this long book is a surfeit of its own technique; Young seems to have left nothing out. Even in its many poems on heartbreak, this work flashes the easy grin of a writer being generous with himself:
Young often reverts to an affected dialect ("everythang," "Dear, I needs") when he wants to be winning; here, the clownishness is used to forestall any judgment of his famine metaphor's questionable taste. Elsewhere in the book dialect simply pinch-hits for poetic effort, as in these lines from "Disaster Movie Theme Music":
By the time I got
to mom'n thems
Heard tell you
were a-ready lost
But surely this is imitation, mere strategic typography: this is not Young's voice. Any book subtitled A Blues is likely to include blues slang; but when the Harvard-educated Young calls a sexual partner "Rider," the effect is decidedly uncomfortable. The word sounds more natural coming from the Rolling Stones.
Young is a talented writer, with a poet's gift for wordplay and an ear for the sounds words make, and when he leaves behind his blues mimicry he is capable of genuinely affecting work—when he describes being pulled over by the police at night, "their bright // lights making me / mole"; or in the opening lines of "Busking," in which a chilly urban sunset is described as money falling in the case of a street musician:
The day folds up like money
if you're lucky. Mostly
sun a cold coin
drumming into the blue
of a guitar case.
This is striking, and suggests that Young is capable of better work than the soft indulgence of most of his present collection. Successful poets, as Yeats assured Joyce, have had worse beginnings.
To achieve his promise, I suspect that Young will have to give up a certain theoretical attitude he has taken up toward "African-American experience"—specifically, that it can only be addressed in terms of popular music and archetypes from the past. Young has made this argument at some length in his prose work, and it is central to the project of these poems. But the need to engraft an approved cultural paradigm onto the expression of one's experience in art is dangerous to a lyric poet. The danger is that it will excuse the kind of aesthetic laziness also visible in some of Langsten Hughes's bluesinspired verse, and sometimes risked by Yeats, in which one writes down to the "authenticity" of a tradition one is intellectually or experientially beyond. Young has based his last three books on the pretense that they are really records. It may be time for him to look to a literary past, and to his own experience, and admit to writing poetry. After all, the blues depend on adapting a set of sung lyrics to a highly formal musical pattern that has no poetic equivalent. Lyric poetry depends on finding a means of written expression in language which is equal to one's mind.
Source: Brian Phillips, Review of Jelly Roll: A Blues, in Poetry, Vol. 183, No. 5, February 2004, pp. 299-301.
In the following review, Muratori notes the musical rhythms and references, coupled with a "literary sensibility," in Young's third book of poetry.
Though you won't find any musical notation in Young's third poetry collection, it's clear that the rhythms of traditional Delta and urban blues form the lattice against which these tightly spun lyrics, most written in couplets, are set. Young understands the blues as an effective medium for seduction and praise, yearning and loss, and while Jelly Roll pays homage to the traditional stylings of Robert Johnson and other seminal blues artists, its wry sense of humor ("Hottentot to trot/you are not"), elliptically paced rhymes (past/path, air/stares), and associative freedom, ("You are some sort/ of September// I look for your red car everywhere") evince a sophisticated, contemporary literary sensibility that never compromises the characteristic directness of the form. Young minimizes sexual swagger, preferring instead to explore the hazardous dimensions of emotional commitment with gritty grace and disarming candor ("Woman, knock me down,/ out, anoint—// just don't leave me lone// like God/done, promising return"). While the collection's extended length might work against the economy of its individual poems, Young's achievement is nonetheless admirable, attesting to both the resilience of the blues and the skill of its talented practitioner.
Source: Fred Muratori, Review of Jelly Roll: A Blues, in Library Journal, Vol. 128, No. 1, January 2003, p. 116.
Bowker Magazine Group
In the following review, the writer points to the vast range of musical genres from which Young has borrowed—from Dixieland to calypso to classical—and shows how Young matches his poems' subject and words with his musical choices.
The careful, colloquial, lyrical Most Way Home (1995) established Young among the best-known poets of his emerging generation; this third book will satisfy many readers' long-held hopes. Despite the title, Young's new work relies not just on blues but on a plethora of musical genres; poems (almost all in short, two-line stanzas) take their titles and sometimes their sounds from older popular genres ("Dixieland" "Ragtime" and "Calypso") and classical forms ("Scherzo," "Nocturne"), bringing things up to date with "Disaster Movie Theme Music." Young matches these various models with a unity of subject: like an old-fashioned sonnet sequence writ large, the book chronicles the start, progress, and catastrophic end of a love affair. Early on, poems like "Shimmy" describe the birth of passion: "You are, lady,/admired—secret//something kept/afar." In "Riff," Young comes up with a precise, slow-motion polyphony: "I am all itch,/total, since you done//been gone-zero/sum, empty set." Despite the self-imposed, consistent limit of short lines, the verse here shows Young to be not only a terrific love poet but one of real emotional variety: after a sonnet sequence (called "Sleepwalking Psalms") Young turns from excitement and romance to disillusion, breakups and regrets ("Joy is the mile-/high ledge"), concluding with poems addressed to landscapes, and with an elegy for a dead male friend. Young has daringly likened himself in earlier poems and prose to Langston Hughes: this versatile lyric tour de force may well justify the ambitious comparison.
Forecast: While Young gained a reputation with poems in journals (and with his anthology Giant Steps), his sophomore effort To Repel Ghosts, a narrative poem about Jean-Michel Basquiat, was not quite a breakthrough, especially as its publisher went under. This long but reader-friendly third collection should do far better; expect strong reviews nationwide.
Source: Bowker Magazine Group, Review of Jelly Roll: A Blues, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 249, No. 47, November 25, 2002, p. 58.
Freud, Sigmund, The Future of an Illusion, W. W. Norton, 1961, pp. 24, 30.
Hoffert, Barbara, "Best Poetry of 2003: Ten Titles, Four Collections from Major Poets, and Four Anthologies," in Library Journal, Vol. 129, No. 7, April 15, 2004, pp. 88-89.
Jarman, Mark, "A Life on the Page," in the Hudson Review, Vol. 56, No. 2, Summer 2003, pp. 367-68.
Muratori, Fred, Review of Jelly Roll: A Blues, in Library Journal, Vol. 128, No. 1, January 2003, p. 116.
Okoro, Dike, "Healing Mother Africa: Contemporary African Poets Explore New Rhythms and Themes," in Black Issues Book Review, Vol. 5, No. 5, September-October 2003, pp. 32-34.
Phillips, Brian, "Ten Takes," in Poetry, Vol. 183, No. 5, February 2004, pp. 290-302.
Review of Jelly Roll: A Blues, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 249, No. 47, November 25, 2002, pp. 58-59.
Young, Kevin, "The Black Psychic Hotline, or The Future of African American Writing," in Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers, edited by Kevin Young, Perennial, 2000, pp. 7-8.
――――――, "Chorale," in Jelly Roll: A Blues, Alfred A. Knopf, 2003, p. 114.
――――――, Jelly Roll: A Blues, Alfred A. Knopf, 2003, pp. 111, 115, 116, 118, 177.
――――――, "Poet of the Month: Kevin Young," on PoetryNet, May 2003, available online at http://members.aol.com/poetrynet/month/archive/young/index.html.
Young, Kevin, and Ernest Hilbert, "A Conversation with Kevin Young," in Bold Type, Vol. 6, No. 11, available online at http://www.randomhouse.com/boldtype/0403/poetry/young_interview.html.
George, Nelson, Post-Soul Nation: The Explosive, Contradictory, Triumphant, and Tragic 1980s as Experienced by African Americans (Previously Known as Blacks and before That Negroes), Viking, 2004.
George characterizes the era that was the 1980s in terms of the African American experience, with extensive reference to a wide variety of aspects of popular culture, including music, television, and literature.
Komunyakaa, Yusef, Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries, University of Michigan Press, 2000.
This text offers a sampling of writings by Komunyakaa (to whom Young has been compared) with respect to his influences, his own poetry, and his artistic sensibilities.
Wald, Elijah, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of Blues, Amistad, 2004.
This historical work examines in extensive detail the inception of the blues and offers a short biography of Robert Johnson, one of the genre's most influential figures.
Young, Kevin, ed., Blues Poems, Knopf, 2003.
This collection offers a variety of poems, selected by Young, that can be considered influential to or exemplary of blues poetry, by such authors as Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Allen Ginsberg.
"Chorale." Poetry for Students. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 23, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/chorale
"Chorale." Poetry for Students. . Retrieved September 23, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/chorale