In his third collection of poetry, Jelly Roll: A Blues (2003), Kevin Young presents the reader with verses drawing first and foremost on the musical genre of the title and also on a wide variety of other historical genres. The titles of the poems themselves are the first indication of his inspirations: "Rhythm & Blues," "Early Blues," "Blues," and "Late Blues" affirm the collection's foundation; "Dixieland," "Ragtime," and "Boogie-Woogie" indicate that Young is wandering further afield while nevertheless remaining rooted in the blues tradition; and "Etude" (a composition with both technical and artistic merit), "Cantata" (a composition employing voices in various forms), and "Rhapsody" (an irregular, improvisational composition) offer evidence of the author's widespread understanding of the essence of music. Indeed, nearly all of the more than one hundred poems in the collection reverberate with musicality, with fifteen titles including the word song. The work's opening epigraph consists of fourteen lines of lyrics written by the blues guitarist Robert Johnson.
"Chorale" fits neatly into this musical framework. According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, a chorale is "a hymn or psalm sung to a traditional or composed melody in church." In appearing directly after the extended ruminations of "Sleepwalking Psalms" and a few poems before "Jubilee"—where the word jubilee has religious connotations both within the Roman Catholic Church and among African Americans regardless of denomination—"Chorale" can be seen as providing something of a core of spirituality within the collection as a whole.
Outside the literal context of its title, "Chorale" can be read as a lamentation of uncertainty. The narrator seems to question what the world has thus far given him and what he can reasonably expect from it in the future. The reader, in turn, wonders along with him. The poem is brief; it consists of eight couplets, or two-line stanzas, and a solitary closing line. In all, the poet uses only sixty-four words to communicate the essence of his train of thought, such that the reader must approach the poem with the utmost attention in attempting to grasp that essence.
Beyond the significance of the title, the first two lines of "Chorale" seem to make clear that it can be read in a religious context. The first line mentions "belief," while the second mentions "faith." Further, the reader can understand that this context has conflicting connotations for the narrator, as the "belief" is described as "difficult," the "faith" as "terrible." Still, while "terrible" is most commonly used in a strictly negative sense, the word can also be read, more neutrally, as indicating that something is "formidable," "awesome," or "great." Thus, the reader cannot necessarily conclude that the narrator has a negative opinion of faith. Notably, the first two lines feature the repetition of the opening word "quite."
Line 3, as a continuation of line 2, indicates that the narrator is not, after all, speaking of "faith" in a wholly generic sense, and indeed, the reader may need to move beyond a spiritual context in order to understand the poem. Lines 2 through 5, in their entirety, read as follows: "Quite terrible, faith / that the night, again, / will nominate / you a running mate." (Note that when reading the poem as a whole, so as to fully reveal its aesthetic, or artistic, value, substantial pauses might be given between lines and stanzas, in accordance with the format. In the course of interpretation, on the other hand, lines may be better read with attention given only to punctuation; as such, the meanings of individual phrases may be easier to determine.) In literal terms, this sentence has evident political overtones, endowing the thought with a certain dryness. Temporarily setting aside the word "again," the reader may understand that when the narrator refers to "faith / that the night … / will nominate / you a running mate," he may be referring to a...
(The entire section is 1,303 words.)