This article delivers a two-pronged intervention into blues prosody. First, it argues that scholars have repeatedly misidentified the metrical organization of blues poems by Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown. The dominant approach to these poems has sought to explain their rhythms with models of alternating stress, including both classical foot prosody and the beat prosody of Derek Attridge. The article shows that the systematic organization of blues structures originates in West African call-and-response patterning (not alternating stress), and is better explained by models of syntax and musical phrasing. Second, it argues that these misclassifications — far from being esoteric matters of taxonomy — lie at the heart of African American aesthetics and identity politics in the 1920s and 1930s. Whereas literary blues verse has long been oversimplified with conventional metrics like “free verse,” “accentual verse,” and “iambic pentameter,” the article suggests that its rhythms arise instead from a rich and complex vernacular style that cannot be explained by the constraints of Anglo-American versification.
How Not to Introduce Blues Prosody:Langston Hughes and the Rhythms of the African American Vernacular Tradition
Michael Skansgaard is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. After previously specializing in the early modern epic (Spenser, Milton), Skansgaard is currently engaged in reevaluating the prosodic practice of Langston Hughes and his successors in the blues idiom. His essay on Hughes’s rhetoric In The Weary Blues is forthcoming In Modern Language Quarterly.
Michael Skansgaard; How Not to Introduce Blues Prosody:Langston Hughes and the Rhythms of the African American Vernacular Tradition. Poetics Today 1 December 2019; 40 (4): 645–681. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-7739071
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