"The Blues Don't Change" by Al Young

I'd never seen this gem of a poem until last week, when it arrived in my inbox as the Poem of the Day from PoetryFoundation.org:

There's so much to say about this poem, other than my initial reaction, which was pretty much Wow. Wow... Wow.

I won't dive too deeply into content here, except to marvel at the richness of it. The title, I learned, is also the title of a song from a 1977 album of the same title by Albert King. There's so much to explore in the way this poem hints at the blues as musical and cultural heritage and also as destiny ("can't shake you").

The language... oh, what this poet does with language! I won't share all of my two pages of notes, but here are some highlights:

  • The title hints at a contradiction to come: the blues (as an entity/force that endures) don't change, but the blues do change everyone—the blues [verb] every [noun] in this poem.
  • The poem starts with "And" and ends with "but." It's an address to Blues, but there's a repeated shift in focus from "I" to "they" (and the "I" is a part of the collective "they"—no one escapes the blues).
  • The poem as a whole is metaphor-laden, and there's only one simile, "you're like a shadow," in which the verb "are" is tucked away into a contraction to minimize its impact, which heightens the shadowiness of something that's not always tangible but is always present.
  • The verbs! This poem is a riot of verbs. Even the more pedestrian verbs are powerful in this context: you are, you can't be, (you) don't care. Some verbs, like "shake" and "move," are repeated for emphasis, and some just pack a punch on their own—"reared and forwarded" and "stamped" with their double meanings, and the thrilling dance of all the rest: wombed and wounded, table-turning and soul-sucking, outfoxed, sting and scratch, wiggling, juggling, loosening, rolling.
  • Repetition plays a huge role. "You" appears 15 times and is the last word of the poem, as well as the only word other than "you are" that's italicized for emphasis. We also see explicit repetitions of "address" (used as a noun, but a play on the fact that the entire poem addresses Blues directly), _______ing their _______ / "loosening that goose," as well as things that shift slightly into other things on second reference: you can / you know how; can shake / can't shake, and "bodies" (a whole) reappearing as "boodies" (a part). There's also a kind of visual repetition in the similar syntax of "(The) Blues Don't Change" and "(they) can't shake you."
  • My entire second page of notes is about rhymes and alliteration. Man, this poem sings. And the rhymes have a kind of wonderful logic. The reader can choose a key word in the first lines and trace its rhymes all the way through the poem. "You" and "Blues" lead to wombed, wounded, move, into, loosening, goose. "I" takes us to Blue Rider, writing, diamond, style, frying pan. "Change" goes to table-turning, necessary, ain't, paint, stay, same way, shake (plus the visual similarity of "chance").
  • The one perfect-rhyming couplet that closes the second stanza also offers a hypnotic rhythmic pulse: "with color or theory or powder or paint."

This poem changed me on first reading and changes me a little more every time.