Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

An obvious interpretation of the poem is that the trumpet player has reached the trappings of “success,” yet he is still troubled, perhaps because he feels a sense of alienation from his heritage, as suggested by the taming of his “vibrant” hair, or perhaps because he is burdened by a heritage of oppression. Filling the sucker-sized bar glass with “liquid fire” and distilled ecstasy, however, the music, a glorious part of his heritage, soothes his troubled mind.

The theme also encompasses the collective African American experience apparent in the identification of the musician as “The Negro,” whose heritage includes the pains and degradation of slavery as noted in reference to the “memory/ Of slave ships” and the “crack of whips.” This heritage is also one of resilience and survival, and music has been one of the means for that survival. It was apparent in the chants of slaves attempting to soften the physical pains of the lash, attempting to cloud the sharp memories of loved ones lost in the holds of ships or on the auction blocks; it was apparent in songs pining or plotting for freedom, an “old desire,” still present. The integration of the concrete “trumpet at his lips,” the riff, and the hypodermic needle, and of the abstract “soul” and “Trouble/ Mellow[ing] to a golden note,” affirms that the music is an integral part of the African American experience. So intertwined, it has a transforming effect both,...

(The entire section is 422 words.)