On "Rent Day Blues"
Joanne V. Gabbin
In another poem, "Rent Day Blues," Brown, using extended dialogue, tells the story of a couple facing rent day without any money. As the man wonders where they will get the rent, his woman turns up with the money from a mysterious source. Though the man is briefly troubled, he finally resolves to let their good fortune stand. In "Rent Day Blues," Brown clearly presents one of the major themes of the blues--poverty and economic uncertainty--within the context of the blues' preoccupation with the love relationship. Here, Brown breaks with the blues tradition by having his blues poem "proceed in a narrative fashion." According to blues critic Charles Keil, the blues lyric rarely proceeds in this fashion but "is designed primarily to illustrate a particular theme or create a general mood." Using dialogue as a narrative technique, Brown is able to add a dramatic dimension and bits of characterization not typical of the blues lyric. For example, in the following stanzas the willingness of the woman to get the rent money any way she can and the man's suspicions and cynicism come through clearly.
My baby says, "Honey,
Dontcha worry 'bout the rent.
Looky here, daddy,
At de money what de good Lord sent."
Says to my baby,
"Baby, I been all aroun';
Never knowed de good Lord
To send no greenbacks down."
Brown is also experimenting with the rhythm of the blues poem. For example, he infuses a jazz-style offbeat rhythm in the poem. The established pattern appears to be iambic trimeter. However, in the first stanza cited above, the last line breaks from this basic pattern with a syncopated pentameter line. In a solidly aesthetic gesture, Brown is taking on the risk and challenge of the literary rather than the oral poet.
From Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition. Copyright © 1985 by Joanne V. Gabbin
When a couple no longer has enough money to pay the rent, the Lord in his mercy providentially makes available a handful of dollars; but the hint is clear that the daughter in the poem had obtained the money by prostituting herself, so that the devil is partly to be thanked that faith in Providence met with some measure of response.
The arraignment of faith as lacking material efficacy has always been a major theme in Negro poetry, but to it Brown adds his own greater bitterness and more chilling cynicism.
From Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes. Copyright © 1973 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
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