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.

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