Publish date:

Writing Your Woes

Life's miseries are the backbone of a strong blues poem.

We all like to complain, to worry about our lives, to fret at fate. But if you've ever listened to a friend whine at length, you know just how dull that can be. Yet there's a way to make complaining in a poem lively and interesting—even ironic and funny. Enter the land of the blues poem.

When we think of the blues, we usually think of singing, starting with the early blues greats like Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith. But the blues can be written as poetry on the page—a great form, with a lot of direct emotion.

The blues was one of the few poetry forms born in the United States. The form is more than 100 years old and squarely in the African-American tradition, which is rich in toasts, rhymes and "the dozens"—a game of verbal one-upmanship. The blues also comes out of work songs and field hollers, which were back-and-forth musical conversations among slaves.

SUBJECT MATTER OVER FORM

There are two ways to write the blues: classic and free verse. The classic, or traditional, blues follows a set formula for the lines and rhyme scheme. Free-verse blues can be written any way the poet pleases, but avoiding a fixed pattern of rhyme or meter.

But the blues is defined as much by subject matter and tone as it is by a specific form. Essentially, the blues complains about life's miseries—being broke, being heartbroken, being down and out. The Elizabethans wrote a form called the complaint, which was almost always about an indifferent or rejecting lover—a love gone bad. The blues goes further than that. It looks at all the suffering in life—from a lost job to being far from home to death itself—and confronts it head on. The blues is blunt and direct. Blues titles might set the theme with Weary Blues, Funeral Blues, Cheating Woman Blues, Woke Up Crying Blues or even, in the hands of Native American writer Sherman Alexie, Reservation Blues. The blues is often witty and even sarcastic to lighten its heavy emotion. Maybe the blues can't offer a solution to our problems, but it can express and accept them.

LITERARY BLUES

The blues started out with singers who often wrote their own lyrics. Robert Johnson was the famous blues singer who played guitar and sang so intensely, he was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his talent. Then Langston Hughes, the great writer of the Harlem Renaissance, put blues poems squarely on the page.

Hughes wrote literary blues—poems that were read instead of sung, that had the stamp of the individual poet, but were also in the tradition.

How can you write the blues? Start off with a subject. Think of something that depresses you. Taxes? Bad weather? It can be funny, too—Fruit Flies Everywhere Blues or Car Mechanic Took my Paycheck Blues. Other subjects you could tackle in blues poems are saying goodbye to someone, railing against cruel fate or blaming someone for your problems.

THE CLASSIC FORM

The classic loose ballad form of the blues is composed of four-line stanzas of about equal length. Each line tends to have six to eight syllables, with three to four stresses. Lines 2 and 4 rhyme. An example:

When a woman gets the blues
She hangs her head and cries
But when a man gets the blues
He hops a freight train and rides.

This traditional form goes:

Line 1
Line 2—loose rhyme A
Line 3—Line 1 with variation
Line 4—repeats loose rhyme A

The blues also can take the following classic form:

Line 1—new
Line 2—new with rhyme A1
Line 1—repeats with small variation
Line 2—repeats rhyme A1
Line 3—new
Line 4—new line with rhyme A2

For example:

When I woke up this morning—my taxes were overdue
It was pouring rain and the roof had begun to leak
Woke up this morning my taxes long past due
It was pouring rain and my roof had begun to leak
I said to myself—you poor thing
Turn over and go back to sleep.

The repetition is important here. It not only sets up a rhythmic beat but also emphasizes that the poet really means what she's saying.

All kinds of poets have tried their hand at the blues. Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Quincy Troupe and even W.H. Auden, Joseph Brodsky and John Yau have written the blues. One great thing about the form is that it's wide open—you can personalize it however you like. For example, Sonia Sanchez wrote a series of poems that complains about an irritating lover who takes her for granted, which she calls Blue Haiku. On the other hand, Thomas McGrath wrote Gone Away Blues, a long list of explaining why he won't buy into things he objects to in society.

So try your own hand at it. Write a blues poem on a rainy day when you're feeling all alone in the world. Or when you watch the news, and the world seems to have gone mad around you. Try the traditional form to get the music in your ear, or just run wild. And have fun—complaining can be just that!

A Few Tips for Writing Personal Essays

A Few Tips for Writing Personal Essays

Here are a few tips for writing personal essays from the Publishing Insights column of the March/April 2021 issue of Writer's Digest.

Dispel vs. Expel (Grammar Rules)

Dispel vs. Expel (Grammar Rules)

Let's look at the differences between dispel and expel with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

Laura Davis: On the Story That Begged To Be Told

Laura Davis: On the Story That Begged To Be Told

Author and writing instructor Laura Davis discusses the process of starting, stopping, and starting again with her new memoir, The Burning Light of Two Stars.

From Our Readers

Which Writer or Work Made You Think About Point of View in a Different Way and Why?: From Our Readers (Comment for a Chance at Publication)

This post announces our latest From Our Readers question: Which writer or work made you think about point of view in a different way and why? Comment for a chance at publication in a future issue of Writer's Digest.

4 Tips on Research for Writing Novels and Stories Beyond Getting the Facts Right

4 Tips on Research for Writing Novels and Stories Beyond Getting the Facts Right

The kind of research you do can make or break your story's authenticity. Author Blake Sanz offers 4 tips on research for your novels and stories beyond getting the facts right.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: Annual Writing Competition Early-Bird Deadline, Seven WDU Courses, and More!

This week, we’re excited to announce the Annual Writing Competition early-bird deadline, seven WDU courses starting this week, and more!

3 Big Tips for Writing a Children’s Picture Book Like a Pro

3 Big Tips for Writing a Children’s Picture Book Like a Pro

Small but mighty, picture books help raise children into lifelong readers. Children's book author Diana Murray offers 3 big tips for writing a picture book like a pro.

5 Things I Learned About Writing From Watching Soap Operas

5 Things I Learned About Writing From Watching Soap Operas

Lessons in writing can come from various forms of art or entertainment. Author Alverne Ball shares 5 things he learned about writing from watching soap operas.

From Script

Writing from an Intimate Point of View and Adding Essential Elements to Solidify Your Screenplay (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by Script magazine, TV writer Kate Sargeant shares a first-hand look on her new digital series that was a life-changing experience. Plus an interview with filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve, a new installment from ‘Ask the Coach’ and more!