Sonny’s Blues in Free Verse Stanzas by Skylar Rush

He and the piano stammered, started one way,

got scared,

stopped;

started another way,

panicked,

marked time, started again; then seemed

to have found a direction,

panicked again,

got stuck.

And the face I saw on Sonny…

I’d never seen before.

Everything had been burned out of it,

and, at the same time,

things usually hidden were being burned

in,

by the fire and fury of the battle which was occurring.

In him.

Up there.

Yet, watching Creole’s face as they neared the end of the first set,

I had the feeling that Something had happened.

Something

I hadn’t heard.

Then they finished, there was scattered applause,

and then, without an instant’s warning, Creole started

into Something else,

it was

almost sardonic,

it was

Am I Blue.

And, as though he commanded,

Sonny began to play.

Something began to happen. And Creole let out the reins.

The dry, low, black man said something awful on the drums,

Creole answered,

and the drums

talked back.

Then the horn insisted,

sweet and high,

slightly det a  c   h    e     d

perhaps,

and Creole listened,

commenting now and then,

dry, and driving,

beautiful and

calm

and old.

Then they all came together again,

and Sonny was part of the family again.

I could tell

from his face.

He seemed to have found, right there beneath his fingers,

a damn brand-new piano.

It seemed that he couldn’t get over it.

Then, for awhile, just being happy with Sonny,

they seemed to be agreeing

with him

that brand-new pianos certainly were a gas.

Then Creole stepped forward to remind them

that what they were playing was

the blues.

He hit Something in all of them,

he hit Something in me. Myself.

And the music tightened

and deepened,

apprehension began to beat the air.

Creole began to

lay flat out

just what those blues

were all about.

They were not about anything very new.

He and his boys up there were keeping it new,

at the risk of ruin,

destruction,

madness,

and death,

in order to find new ways to make us

listen.

‘Cause, while the tale of how we suffer,

and how we are delighted,

and how we may triumph

is never new,

it always,

always must be heard.

It’s the only light

we’ve got in all this

darkness.

And this tale

has another aspect in every country.

A new depth in every generation.

Listen,

urged ol’ Creole.

Listen.

Now these, here,

these are

Sonny’s blues.

He made the little black man on the drums know it,

and the bright, brown man on the horn.

Creole wasn’t trying

any longer

to get Sonny in the water.

He was wishing him

Godspeed.

Then he stepped back, very slowly

filling the air

with the immense suggestion

that Sonny speak.

For himself.

They all gathered ‘round

and Sonny played.

Every now and again one of them seemed

to say, amen.

Sonny’s fingers filled the air

with life.

His life.

But that life contained so many others.

and Sonny went

aaallllll the way back.

He really began

with the spare, flat statement

of the opening phrase of the tune.

Then he began to make it his.

It was beautiful.

Unhurried.

No longer a lament.

With what burning

he had made it his.

With what burning

we had yet to make it ours

How could we too,

cease lamenting?

Freedom lurked around us

and I understood, at last.

He could help us be free.

If we would listen—

that he would never be free until we did.

I heard what he had

gone through,

and would continue to

go through,

until he came to rest in earth.

He had made it his,

and he was giving it back.

As everything must be given back

so it can live

forever.

In American Fiction, form is one of the strongest ways to convey a message or expound a theme. Just as long rambling sentences can be used to demonstrate fast-paced action or excited emotion, short declaratives and stanzas can lend to the resonance of personal strife, heavy emotion, or a moment that deserves a slower pace. I experimented with the form of the climactic scene in James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues, uncluttering the appearance of the words to inflect and accentuate the pulse of the entire piece. Sonny’s struggle to find an outlet with which to express himself and his yearning to find people who will listen drives the story and culminates in this scene in which the narrator is a spectator. By converting the narrative from standard prose into free verse poetry, the tension is drawn out through a slower pace. Splitting the scene into shorter stanzas, sometimes only a word or phrase long, also allowed me to emphasize the voices of the individual musicians, and the profound collective interaction that they share to resonate more distinctly in the mind of the reader.

Though my original plan was to set the scene into blocks that resembled something more along the lines of prose poetry or lyric essay, the music of Baldwin’s language seemed to belong in a format that emphasized its rhythm and the way certain lines can just sing off of the page. For instance, in the beginning of the excerpt, the narrator discusses Sonny’s initial uneasiness behind the piano, punctuating this struggle to play with simple commas and semi colons: “He and the piano stammered, started one way, got scared, stopped; started another way, panicked, marked time, started again” (Baldwin 502). Having personally experienced how nerves can ruin a performance, I feel that the line breaks that I chose in my adaptation of the piece serve to illustrate further the panic that one feels when things aren’t going as planned on stage. It feels as if, after every mistake is made, there is a momentary void and a recollection of thought which everyone, including the audience, notices. I made this void and recollection visible by manipulating the white space on the page and the need to move the reader’s eyes to the next line as if starting over completely. The most notable use of this playing with the visual aspect of free verse poetry is seen on page-three concerning the narrators discourse on the message of the blues. Baldwin’s version displays this powerful assertion in one long sentence that a reader who is not looking closely could miss altogether. The animation, however, changes the feel of the sentence altogether:

They were not about anything very new.

He and his boys up there were keeping it new,

at the risk of ruin,

destruction,

madness,

and death,

in order to find new ways to make us

listen. (87-94)

By using the same punctuation, changing only the way in which the words look on the page, the reader is able to clearly see the personal importance of what’s at stake for these musicians in their oppressive environment, and why Sonny needs to tell his own story. Because, though the tale of how the people in poverty-stricken Harlem suffer, and how they may triumph, as Baldwin states, “is never new, it always must be heard” (Baldwin 503). In other words, the musicians do not expect action in response to the music that they play—the life stories that they tell—but rather, they strive simply to be heard and empathized with. Sonny, as we see very clearly in my animation, risks his own self-destruction by dedicating himself to the music, keeping it fresh and new so that there may always be ears willing to listen despite the ever-present threat of relinquishing in defeat when confronted by the triggers and temptation that come with diving back into the late night bar scene.

As a musician who learned by improvisation, I have never been more moved by a piece of literature than this one; I feel that it very accurately represents this nonverbal interaction. As a creative writer, however, I feel that the profound and deeply personal nature of musical storytelling is more clearly illustrated when each musician’s voice is set into a section of its own. The narrator’s acknowledgement of this nonverbal conversation, on page-three of the animation, perfectly exemplifies this notion. “Listen, / urged ol’ Creole. / Listen. / Now these, here, / these are Sonny’s / blues. / He made the little black man on the drums know it, / and the bright, brown man on the horn. / Creole wasn’t trying / any longer / to get Sonny in the water. He was wishing him / Godspeed.” (Animation 110-123). This excerpt is taken from the moment in which Sonny finally begins to come into his own, shaking off the pain he feels by facing a huge trigger for his recovering addiction. Without a single utterance of words, his fellow musicians back him up and cheer him on, before Creole—the leader of the discussion—reminds them all of the task at hand: to play the blues and tell the folks in the room specifically about Sonny’s blues. While this discourse can be deciphered through Baldwin’s prose, it has greater impact when placed into stanzas because the reader can take his or her time to digest each phrase individually and to watch as the support from his friends develops to give him strength. The reader can pause after each individual component of the conversation, preventing confusion as to who is saying what, let alone whether or not they are actually talking or if the manner in which they play is what’s suggestive of their opinions.

After playing with the language and its placement on the page, I was surprised to see how fun it was to utilize aspects of projective verse, noting how resonant a single word can become with an extra line break and an indention, or with the spacing of letters to mimic the meaning of the overall word. At first, the manipulation of the way words look on the page was just a fun and unfamiliar experimentation that looked cool and different. After finishing the creative portion, however, I couldn’t help but notice the power that certain words could contain when they were set alone, surrounded by the white blankness of the page. The function of this element of free form poetry does exactly what its title implies—projects verses and words—and it is best exemplified by the final stanza of the poem. In the original, Baldwin’s narrative, though eloquent and musical in and of itself, seems to race by Sonny’s triumph in expressing himself, moving quickly on to the narrator’s inner monologue on the greater effect of oppression on those like he and Sonny in environments like Harlem. But the animation drives home just how far Sonny, specifically, has come and will continue to go.

I heard what he had

gone through,

and would continue to

go through,

until he came to rest in earth.

He had made it his,

and he was giving it back.

As everything must be given back

so it can live

forever. (164-176)

Just as humans make their life, their personalities, and their bodies their own while existing on earth, Sonny is braving the possibility of a cyclical return into the heroin-plagued self-destruction from which he came by reliving that experience through music. But he made the song—a Billie Holiday cover—his own and shared it with the people so that they may enjoy it in a new way and so that it would never get old. Therefore, in Sonny making the song his own, he passes his version to others so that they may do the same. And just as he will one day give his body back to the earth from which it came, he offers himself through music to those in the future who will share his experience, so that they may listen to his example, overcome their own personal hardships, and persevere. Forever.

Works Cited

Gilyard, Keith, and Anissa Janine Wardi. Baldwin, James. African American Literature. 1st ed. Sonny’s Blues. New York City: Penguin Academics, 2004. 502-504. Print.

Camille Todaro and the tone of marital discord in Hanif Kureischi’s “Intimacy”

The author explores marital discord, and all its entanglements as to what brings a previously happy couple to a state of unrecognizable discontent. The tone of this piece makes it very believable, and raw. In its presentation, it is not amplified or overly dramatic, but rather dry and placid. There is a marriage; it is broken, is how it reads. Written from the disillusioned husband’s perspective, we are made aware of his impending departure from the family. He wallows pensively in his final night at home with his wife Susan and two young sons. The two are very much in their own worlds, with Susan’s being largely defined by the kids, and his more or less marked by a kind of neglectful existence, left to fend for his own emotional stability and sexual needs. The characterization in this piece is what evokes such a strong message of unhappiness, and how binding obligations of home and a desire to hunt for our own personal happiness makes for a revolting life issue.

In his lecture about Lightness, Italo Calvino says, “The best designs are always simple and free of weightiness. Much like writing, certain words evoke a feeling or imagery of weight” (Calvino, 8). Hanif Kureischi accomplishes this with his refined style of writing, painting the protagonist’s impending exit as a quietly somber one. There is no knock-down, drag out fight, no profanities, just the protagonist realizing that he doesn’t fit in the very life in which he has created for himself. But the reader can feel the weight of the protagonist’s dilemma—the pain, the guilt involved (on part of his kids).

The protagonist’s wife, Susan is depicted as somewhat of a neo-feminist, strong willed about her opinions and self-assured, able to maintain composure, while the protagonist assumes a more passive exterior. “When we really talk, it is about them—something they said or did” (Kureishi 362). The scene at the dinner table really speaks volumes to the palpable void within their marriage. Susan flips on the television and he reads the newspaper. When the two attempt to converse, it becomes nothing more than a trivial tit-for-tat where Susan picks at every little thing he does. “Sometimes I go along with what Susan wants, but in an absurd parodic way, hoping she will see how foolish I find her” (Kureishi 365). The author succeeds at illustrating the protagonist’s apathetic stance with regard to Susan’s maladjusted treatment of him. While he doesn’t necessarily play the victim role, we can see that he is indeed disconnected. His actions are somewhat robotic, where he does things, but there lacks feeling behind it. If he feels anything at all, it is for his two sons, of whom he is about to leave. At the closing there is good illustration of the struggle he feels, as he kisses the one good night for the last time in a long while until he will be united with them again, and solemnly walks out the door.

Loreena Stanga talks lightness in Hanna Al Shaykh’s “The Keeper of the Virgins”

Hanna Al Shaykh’s, “The Keeper of the Virgins” follows an unnamed dwarf in a world that pities or scoffs at him. The dwarf meanders about his life, immersed in study, reflection and writing. Each day, he leaves his family home afoot and makes the two-hour trip to the convent with the hope of catching a glimpse of Georgette, a woman from whom he had developed a keen sense of companionship that lived within its walls. In desperation to live within the walls of the convent, where the “pure ones” live, the dwarf rushes past the gates to seize his opportunity while the Lord Bishop is paying his annual visit. The dwarf is well known to the nuns as they too observed the dwarf during his daily dedicated vigil outside the gates. To his surprise, upon his first introduction to the Lord Bishop and the convent, they accept the dwarf and offer him the position of Watchman. The dwarf’s family, who had previously only lent him grudging acceptance, realizes he does not return home. With the family fearing the worse, the brother travels to the convent in search of him. The dwarf speaks to his brother once, and only to confirm that he is well, even satisfied and welcomed. Inside the convent, he is accepted and given the unconditional manifestations of love from the nuns, which the outside world has never experienced.

The themes that Al Shaykh’s uses in this story deal with obsession and unconditional acceptance. After the dwarf’s entrance into the convent, the mother and brother begin to worry about his absence. They lament about how badly they had personally treated the dwarf, and the brother races to the convent in search of him. The new contrast, between the brother and the dwarf, is a parable-like conversion of worth. To his family, the dwarf was a burden, an embarrassment to his brother and his mother. Inside the walls, he finds his divine calling. He is successful in his endeavors to support the nuns in their devotion to Jesus, and this new purpose takes place of his previous obsession on the outside of the wall. Now he is fulfilled by an overwhelming sense of acceptance by his new family, the nuns. Inside the convent, his new life has brilliant color and divine purpose, something the dwarf was missing in the outside world.

Outside the gates of the convent, his family dwells near the gate in the same manner the dwarf did before. To stay within the confines of the convent, the dwarf must ignore the pleas of his family. His new fervent obsession with the nuns allows him to grow “used to the obligatory link being severed.” Italo Calvino argues the opposition between lightness and weight in his lecture series called Six Memos for the next Millennium. Calvino says, “I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structures of the stories.” This is a technique Al- Shaykh has accomplished with the disconnection of the dwarf from his family. Initially, the separation from his family was difficult, but the dwarf was able to recognize the darkness of the outside world. This world did not accept his ideas or his place in it without pity. This theme of acceptance is solidified further after the dwarf is shown the rotting corpse of someone unidentified in the story, but whom I believe is Georgette. His infatuation with Georgette moved him to travel to the convent each day. The realization of her death was softening by the senior nun’s reassurance that the dwarf had a divine purpose. Although the focal point of his obsession was lost forever, his new niche as the watchman provided him a sense of contentment of loving acceptance. The eerie transfer of obsession from the dwarf to his family allows the reader to have a sense of justification for the dedicated dwarf.

Matt Stiglbauer talks pacing and Calvino’s quickness in “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” by Angela Carter

Angela Carter’s The Courtship of Mr. Lyon tells the story of a down-on-his-luck lawyer whose car breaks down in the snow during Christmastime. He does not have the money to buy his daughter the one thing she asked for: a single white rose. He walks to get help after his car dies and comes upon a mysterious house, upon the gate of which is a single white rose. He enters the house through a door that opens on his own and a dog ushers him to a phone, beside which is the number for a mechanic, who tells the man that the house’s master has taken care of all expenses. As he is leaving the house the man takes the white rose and is accosted by its master, a lion-like man who angrily reprimands him. The master listens to the man’s explanation, that he took the rose for his daughter, and agrees to let the man leave if he brings back his daughter, Beauty, for dinner. The dinner is short and the man leaves his daughter with the master and leaves for London. Time passes and the daughter grows close to the master. Her father calls and she visits him in London, but she promises that she will return by Winter’s end. She doesn’t and his dog visits her in London to bring her back. She returns to the master’s house to find him on his death bed. She rushes to his side and he tells her he is dying, but she kisses his paw and tells him she’ll be his forever if he stays alive. The moment she kisses him he turns into a man and says that he thinks he can stomach some food. The story ends with a sentence in present tense as Mr. and Mrs. Lyon walk together with the dog.

Angela Carter’s story is a somewhat unique take on the Beauty and the Beast storyline, narrated by an omniscient narrator who doesn’t have a specific personality or stake in the story. Carter’s use of the 3rd person is deft: she is able to convey rich details without being overbearing or making the narrator too much of a character. For example the sentence “There was an air of exhaustion, of despair in the house and, worse, a kind of physical disillusion, as if its glamour had been sustained by a cheap conjuring trick and now the conjurer, having failed to pull the crowds, had departed to try his luck elsewhere” (144). By getting into the head of the character we are following and describing the scene from what is essential their perspective, Carter is able to vividly describe the scene as the narrator without making the narrator into a character.

In his Six Memos for the Next Millenium, Italo Calvino talks about the concept of quickness. He gives a plethora of examples of what he considers quickness to be, and specifically mentions that his own personal motto since childhood has been Festina lente, or “hurry slowly.” He explains that the concept is intriguing to him because of its emblems, and the potential which utilization of the concept unlocks. Angela Carter utilizes the concept of Festina lente in The Courtship of Mr. Lyon. The wealthy lion and his “agate eyes” are contrasted with the helpless, down-on-their-luck family of Beauty and the lawyer. The story itself is short considering the amount of action that happens in the plot and the time that passes, but there is grand attention to detail in many places, such as the quote in the paragraph above. The author writes a plot that must either move very quickly or become stagnant, and fills each sentence with detail, cleverly getting in to the head of each character via the narrator (as mentioned above) to avoid becoming sluggish. 

“Language as It Ought to Be” — Kandace Taylor looks at exactitude in Juno Diaz’s “Ysrael”

Junot Diaz’s “Ysrael” is the story of brothers Yunior and Rafa who are spending a typical summer just outside the town of Ocoa in the Dominican Republic. This particular summer becomes a lot more interesting when the boys go on a mission to discover what lies beneath the mask of a local boy named Ysrael, who was horribly disfigured when a pig ate away at his face when he was a baby. This story is told in the first person, with the character Yunior recounting his and his brother’s experience during this summer that ends up making a deep impression on nine-year-old Yunior.

Diaz’s use of the first person creates a unified narrative because “Ysrael” is an uninterrupted retelling of these events from Yunior’s perspective. The reader gets the sense that Yunior is a trustworthy narrator because even though he’s telling the story years after it happened, his retelling is not colored too much by his maturity or by the benefit of hindsight. The way he tells the story is the way his nine-year-old self would have interpreted the events happening around him at the time. This choice on the part of Diaz creates a compelling narrative because the reader isn’t told what to think or what value to assign to Yunior and Rafa’s actions. Such value judgments become irrelevant because older Yunior is not telling the story in order to illustrate a moral or theme, he is just recounting a story from his life. This story shows that life, when it’s being lived in the moment, and even when it’s looked at in hindsight, doesn’t necessarily unfold into larger themes or easily discernible lessons. Sometimes what happened is just what happened, and it makes an impression on the individuals living it and that impression is all they can take away from it. The end of “Ysrael” exemplifies this:

“Ysrael will be OK, I said.

Don’t bet on it.

They’re going to fix him.

A muscle fluttered between [Rafa’s] jaw bone and his ear. Yunior, he said tiredly, They aren’t going to do shit to him.

How do you know?

I know, he said.”

The older Yunior who is telling the story knows why Ysrael won’t get the treatment he needs. Nine-year-old Yunior though, did not understand what Rafa was saying. By not interjecting his present knowledge into the story, older Yunior allows the reader to experience the same ambiguity that nine-year-old Yunior experiences at the end of this story and by doing so communicates more clearly the tragedy of Ysrael. Notes of tragedy underscore this story and the narrator allows them to shine through by not explicitly stating them. That way the reader experiences them the way younger Yunior does: as flashes, as something that is buried in the mind and the heart but every so often darts to the surface. Examples of this are when Yunior does things that remind Rafa of their dad. The following quote occurs when Yunior asks Ysrael about his kite:

“Where did you get that? I asked.

Nueva York, he said. From my father.

No shit! Our father’s there too! I shouted.

I looked at Rafa, who, for an instant, frowned. Our father only sent us letters and an occasional shirt or pair of jeans at Christmas.”

The implications here are that Rafa and Yunior’s father is not only away in the U.S., it’s as if he has forgotten about them. In this moment Ysrael, a disfigured pariah of a small town in the Dominican Republic, is in a better place than Rafa and Yunior, because his father sends him good gifts. And that pisses Rafa off. Older Yunior doesn’t say any of that though, and it is because Junot Diaz made the choice for the first-person narrator to keep his opinion out of the recounting of the story that “Ysrael” can resonate with the reader in such a visceral way.

 

In regard to Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Junot Diaz’s narrator helps the story achieve the third component, Calvino’s definition of “exactitude” that Calvino mentions in the chapter of the same name. This component says that exactitude is exemplified by “a language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination.” The language of the narrator in “Ysrael” achieves this precision through what he leaves unexplained and unqualified. By so doing he expressed the “subtleties of thought and imagination.” For example, older Yunior describes how Rafa would describe in explicit detail his exploits with the local girls. At the end of the passage older Yunior describes that at nine years old, “I was too young to understand most of what he said, but I listened to him anyway, in case these things might be useful in future.” Rafa telling him this information he can’t use (information which might not even be true, considering Rafa is a twelve-year-old boy with nothing to do) is ironically a time during which Yunior feels like his brother is treating him almost like an equal. This is a time of bonding for them. The narrator’s word choices are precise in that older Yunior is able to reproduce the way in which his nine-year-old would have described what was happening. In the simple, straightforward and slang-laden language of a nine-year-old, the narrator is still able to communicate the complexity beneath the seemingly mundane events of the story.   

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