The Poems

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Kevin Young’s third book of poems, Jelly Roll: A Blues, is more a conceptual book of poems than a collection. Read in order from beginning to end, the poems tell the chronological story of a man falling in love with a woman named Rider, being painfully rejected by her, and reconciling himself to the loss. The book presents a three-part structure, and each part contains numerous poems that trace these events. Young presents the poems as “a blues,” a form of music first introduced to the United States by Africans during the slave trade. Young’s conception of the book as “a blues” is a literary conceit, an extended metaphor that serves to organize the work. Many of the poems’ titles are music terms from the blues genre, such as “Swing,” “Ragtime,” and “Ditty.” However, Young also reaches outside the genre for other titles: “Aubade,” “Cantata,” and “Bluegrass” are terms associated with other, very different styles of music.

The poems comprise mostly unrhymed couplets of varied meter. The poetic style in Jelly Roll consists of short lines very economically expressed, producing a staccato effect with an occasional rhyme. An extreme example of this economy of style is found in “Zoot”:

Speakeasy she.Am asunder.Are.She pluck

(The entire section is 547 words.)

Jelly Roll Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Arnold, Robert. “About Kevin Young.” Ploughshares 32, no. 1 (Spring, 2006): 186-190. Provides a biographical profile of Young, including information on his education, formative writing experiences, achievements, and awards; describes the scope of each of Young’s books and amply quotes Young on his artistic goals. Young is the guest editor of this issue of Ploughshares, so the issue as a whole is revealing of his personal aesthetic and his tastes in contemporary poetry and fiction.

Jarmon, Mark. “A Life on the Page.” The Hudson Review 56, no. 2 (Summer, 2003): 359-368. Critiques five poets’ books, including Jelly Roll, praising Young’s clipped, improvisational style and his use of African American vernacular. Claims Young’s blending of vernacular and standard dialect connects this book culturally and stylistically to work by Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks.

Logan, William. “Satanic Mills.” The New Criterion 21, no. 10 (June, 2003): 68-75. Reviewing books by six poets, including Kevin Young’s Jelly Roll, the author praises Young’s creative wordplay but ultimately finds the book dispiriting, unable to capture the soul of blues music—meaning unbearable loss.

Palattella, John. “Patrimony.” The Nation 280, no. 18 (May 9, 2005): 28-32. Reviewing five of Young’s books, the author describes Young’s method of approaching a book: He selects a genre or overarching theme and then steeps it in an African American cultural history. Most Way Home focuses on Jim Crow Deep South; To Repel Ghosts on the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat; Jelly Roll on American Blues music; and Black Maria on film noir. Palattella claims Jelly Roll and Black Maria are marred by weak puns and sloppy wordplay.