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.)