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On "A Poem for Myself"


Patricia Alveda Liggins Hill

Rather, Knight’s ‘A Poem for Myself (Or Blues for a Mississippi Black Boy)" expresses nostalgia for the South:

[quotes poem]

On one level, Knight sings of his own rural background and nostalgia for his birthplace. Apparently, at first, he is anxious to leave his home and travel to the North. Nonetheless, after going to such northern urban centers as Detroit, Chicago and New York, he realizes that his social and economic conditions have not changed--he’s "still the same old black boy with the same old blues." Discovering that his quest for freedom will not be resolved in the North, he now wishes to return to his southern homeland "This time to stay for good." Now, the poet desperately looks towards the South for the answer to his personal dilemma and he resolves that he will either find freedom in his birthplace or die "in the Mississippi mud." On another level, functioning as a Black blues singer, Knight reveals the collective yearning of Blacks as a whole—to reestablish their collective blood ties by returning to their southern roots. Like Jean Toomer in Cane, Knight brings the Black life experience in America back full circle to its southern ancestral home. Almost prophetically, both writers foresaw the present migration of tens of thousands of Blacks back to the South where land and other opportunities are now available to them. These are the Blacks whose forefathers generations back had left their rural southern lands and had migrated to the North for what they envisioned as social and economic freedom only to find that their dream of liberty is still deferred.

For "Poem for Myself," Knight uses the transcribed musical blues patterns of both Hughes and Brown to establish his contemporary narrative blues. He adopts the basic blues-ballad form of Brown and Hughes (a b a b c b):

I was born in Mississippi;
I walked barefooted thru the mud.
Born black in Mississippi,
Walked barefooted thru the mud.
But, when I reached the age of twelve
I left that place for good.

Knight "worries" the third and fourth lines in this first stanza by shortening the line and slightly varying the words: "I was born in Mississippi,. . .", then, "Born black in Mississippi." Also, "I walked barefooted thru the mud, . . .", then, "Walked barefooted thru the mud." Knight also "worries" the third line in the second stanza by using a Hughes’ device of adding the word "said." Hughes demonstrates this technique in his poem "Chicago Blues" (my underlining):

I’m going to Chicago, sorry that I can’t take you
Said
, I’m going to Chitown, Laws, I can’t take you
Ain’t nothing in Chicago, Babe, that a monkey woman can do.

Knight’s pattern is very similar:

My daddy, he chopped cotton
And he drank his liquor straight
Said
my daddy chopped cotton.
And he drank his liquor straight.
When I left that Sunday morning
He was leaning on the barnyard gate.

In his stanza, Knight uses Hughes’ basic blues structure in "Chicago Blues," with the exception that he splits the two long lines of Hughes’ pattern into pairs of lines which makes a six line, rather than a three line stanza. Furthermore, in the fourth stanza of the poem, Knight "worries" the rhyming couplet by substantially lengthening the blues refrain:

Said I done strolled all those funky avenues
I’m still the same old black boy with the same old blues.

In addition, like Hughes and Brown, Knight uses the dash (—) to stimulate the blue note and signal prolongation:

I been to Detroit and Chicago –
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
This time to stay for good –

To further simulate the blue note, the poet employs several long vowel "oo" sounding words such as "to," "thru," "avenues," and "blues." The poet uses such devices as these to reinforce the idea that the poem should not only be spoken aloud but, even moreso, sung.

From "The New Black Aesthetic as a Counteroetics: The Poetry of Etheridge Knight." Diss. Stanford University, 1977. Ó 1977 Patricia Alveda Liggins Hill.


Patricia Liggins Hill

The search-for-heritage theme Knight also expresses in his blues poem "A Poem for Myself (Or Blues for A Mississippi Black Boy)." Whereas Sterling Brown and Langston Hughes tell of the black race's disenchantment and oppression in the South in much of their blues poetry, Knight expresses his own as well as his race's nostalgia for the region. Like Jean Toomer in Cane, Knight brings the black life experience in America back full circle to its Southern ancestral roots.

Knight's blues poem begins with his narrative of the black's experience in the South:

I was born in Mississippi;
I walked barefooted thru the mud.
Born black in Mississippi,
Walked barefooted thru the mud.
But when I reacher the age of twelve
I left that place for good.

For this narrative blues, Knight adopts the basic blues ballad form of Brown and Hughes (ababcb).In other words, instead of using the basic blues idiom (a stanza of three iambic pentameter lines in which the second line is the repetition and the third a comment, increment or resolution line), Kight splits the three long lines of basic blues stanza into six short lines. . . .

In Knight's stanza and throughout his poem, he also uses a device which Hughes brought to transcribed blues poetry—"worrying the line" (slightly shortening or lengthening the lines or varying the words). For example, in the stanza just quoted, instead of repeating "Road, road ... road ... road, road!" for his repetition line, Hughes changes the words in his fourth line to "on the no'thern road." (He also shortens his fourth line.) Knight also alters his repetition lines (the third and fourth lines). He drops the "I was" of the first line and the "I" of his second line in order to shorten or "worry" his refrain.

In the same vein, Knight continues his blues narrative. In the next two stanzas, he indicates why he (and other blacks as well) left the South: the social/economic opportunities were limited for blacks in the region:

My daddy he chopped cotton
And he drank his liquor straight
Said my daddy chopped cotton.
And he drank his liquor straight
When I left that Sunday morning
He was leaning on the barnyard gate.
I left my momma standing
With the sun shining in her eyes.
Left her standing in the yard
With the sun shining in her eyes.
And I headed North.
As straight as the Wild Goose flies.

However in the North, he finds that the oppressive conditions have not improved:

I been to Detroit & Chicago--
Been to New York city too
I been to Detroit & Chicago
Been to New York city too
Said I done strolled all those funky avenues
I'm still the same old black boy with the same old blues.

In the above stanza, Knight uses another technique from the Brown-Hughes blues tradition. He places a dash at the end of the line ("Chicago--") to simulate the blue note. This device is used by blues poets to signal prolongation to the reader/ audience. For example, Hughes uses it in his poem "Wake":

Tell all my mourners
To mourn in red--
Cause there ain’t no sense
In my being dead.

Likewise, Brown employs it in "Southern Road," which has already been mentioned ("--hunk--").

At the end of his poem, Knight expresses the resolution to his personal dilemma as well as his race's: a return to the Southern homeland to reestablish roots and collective blood ties.

From "’Blues for a Mississippi Black Boy’": Etheridge Knight’s Craft in the Black Oral Tradition." From Mississippi Quarterly (1982-1983)


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