Authenticity and Elevation: Sterling Brown's Theory of the Blues
Thomas, Lorenzo, African American Review
Every poet must confront a serious problem: how to reconcile one's private preoccupations with the need to make poetry that is both accessible and useful to others. A failure in this area does not, of course, prevent the production of poems. Indeed, some poems - like many of T. S. Eliot's - may be records of this struggle, while others have the disturbingly eloquent beauty of Church testifying or 12-step program witness. One manner of reconciliation is an embrace of what may be called tradition, but even this is problematic.
The idea of tradition made Eliot uneasy; at best he saw it as a living artist's colloquy and competition with the dead (48-50). In his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1920), Eliot points out that acquiring the "consciousness of the past" is both necessary and perilous for a poet; and eventually, in his description of it, tradition begins to assume the proportions of a face that "sticks that way" (52-53).
As a poet somewhat younger than Eliot, Sterling A. Brown delighted in experimentation yet also valued his role as a contributor to a tradition. In the poems he composed in the 1920s, Brown "sought to combine the musical forms of the blues, work songs, ballads, and spirituals with poetic expression in such a way as to preserve the originality of the former and achieve the complexity of the latter" (Gabbin 42). Brown's relationship to tradition was, in other words, something like a mirror-image of Eliot's. Where Eliot cringed before a weighty past, Brown - focusing on the African American vernacular tradition - perceived an originality and creativity to be mastered and then practiced in an even more original manner. In fact, Brown's poetics document an attitude toward tradition that is not very different than the one held by the blues singers themselves.(1) It is worth noting, also, that Brown did not necessarily see his valorization of African American folk tradition as inconsistent with his practice of contemporary poetic experiment. Just as Hart Crane and others fled the stultifying worldview of their parents, Brown could warn against "an arising snobbishness; a delayed Victorianism" among educated African Americans ("Our Literary Audience" 42). And when he analyzed the blues, Brown discerned a poetic approach that paralleled the Imagists and other Modernists "in substituting the thing seen for the bookish dressing up and sentimentalizing" that characterized nineteenth-century literary verse ("The Blues as Folk Poetry" 378).
In addition to addressing the dilemma of privacy and access, of the proper value of tradition, Sterling Brown's work also shows how one writer negotiated the relationship of the creative arts - both "highbrow" and "folk" - to the political agenda of the African American struggle for self determination as it developed in the period between the two world wars. In choosing to study the blues, Brown found himself engaged with a genre of poetry that offers its own clever solution to these problems. The blues, Brown discovered, "has a bitter honesty. This is the way the blues singers and their poets have found life to be. And their audiences agree" ("The Blues" 288). Indeed, it is this agreement between poet and audience that is the reality and the purpose of the blues.
Houston A. Baker, Jr., has rightly noted the unusual circumstance of the awesomely intellectual young Sterling Brown embracing a form devised by the unlettered (92-95), and perhaps an important clue is found in Brown's poem "Ma Rainey." Rainey's art and its powerful effect on her audience, her ability to" 'jes catch hold of us, somekindaway' "(Poems 63) through song, is precisely the ambition of every poet, and may explain one source of Brown's attraction to the blues. There are some other possibilities as well. Whether or not one sees Brown's poetry as part of the Modernist direction - or of the Regionalism that seemed to make a number of largely regional "splashes" during the 1930s - Brown's poems also clearly embody and represent two decidedly pre-Modern projects. One of these is the "corrective" gesture of African American scholarship, and the other is the desire of both poets and critics to create a "national literature" for black Americans.
In 1930, Brown declared "a deep concern with the development of a literature worthy of our past, and of our destiny; without which literature we can never come to much." He added, "I have deep concern with the development of an audience worthy of such literature" ("Our Literary Audience" 42). In a sense this aim balances Brown's Modernist tendencies and leads him toward the compilation of "antiquities" found in the folk tradition. As Charles H. Rowell has noted, Brown belonged to a group of writers who "realized that to express the souls of black folk, the artist has to divest himself of preconceived and false notions about black people, and create an art whose foundation is the ethos from which spring black life, history, culture, and traditions" (131). This effort is also consistent with the "Correctionist" mission first assumed by …
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Publication information: Article title: Authenticity and Elevation: Sterling Brown's Theory of the Blues. Contributors: Thomas, Lorenzo - Author. Journal title: African American Review. Volume: 31. Issue: 3 Publication date: Fall 1997. Page number: 409+. © 1999 African American Review. COPYRIGHT 1997 Gale Group.
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