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Billy Collins' "The Blues"

Updated on November 18, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Billy Collins

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "The Blues"

In his poem, "The Blues," former U.S. poet laureate, Billy Collins, creates a speaker who dramatizes the skill of a blues song to influence an audience: if a person merely reports that he lost his love, little sympathy would be garnered, but if he dramatizes that loss in a blues song with sad guitar sounds and emotional phrasings, his song will bring about sympathetic reactions that his mere statement of fact never could.

The Blues

Much of what is said here
must be said twice,
a reminder that no one
takes an immediate interest in the pain of others.

Nobody will listen, it would seem,
if you simply admit
your baby left you early this morning
she didn't even stop to say good-bye.

But if you sing it again
with the help of the band
which will now lift you to a higher,
more ardent, and beseeching key,

people will not only listen,
they will shift to the sympathetic
edges of their chairs,
moved to such acute anticipation

by that chord and the delay that follows,
they will not be able to sleep
unless you release with one finger
a scream from the throat of your guitar

and turn your head back to the microphone
to let them know
you're a hard-hearted man
but that woman's sure going to make you cry.

Commentary

First Stanza: The Importance of Repetition

Much of what is said here
must be said twice,
a reminder that no one
takes an immediate interest in the pain of others.

The speaker begins by commenting on the fact that repetition is part of the blues song. He frames this fact as resulting from human nature, which according to this speaker, is unlikely to notice the pain of others unless it is repeated at least twice.

Second Stanza: Phrasing for Sentiment

Nobody will listen, it would seem,
if you simply admit
your baby left you early this morning
she didn't even stop to say good-bye.

Further elaborating his first observation, the speaker asserts that nobody will listen to a simple admission that "your baby left you early in the morning / she didn't even stop to say good-bye."

Those lines allude to and represent the many variations on the theme, for example, the line from "My Baby Left Me" by Elvis Presley, "My baby even left me, never said goodbye." Many blues numbers focus on this theme and some combination of phrasings for this sentiment.

Third Stanza: Spoken vs Sung Words

But if you sing it again
with the help of the band
which will now lift you to a higher,
more ardent, and beseeching key,

The speaker continues his observation that if a man simply spoke those words to people, most would hardly notice, but "if you sing it again / with help of a band," they will gladly listen as the music "lift[s] you to a higher / more ardent and beseeching key."

Fourth Stanza: Listening and Listening Carefully

people will not only listen,
they will shift to the sympathetic
edges of their chairs,
moved to such acute anticipation

Not only will the people listen, they will listen carefully with deep interest and "shift to the sympathetic edges of their chairs." While the simple report that one's baby has left him will not bring much reaction, if that loss is framed in a song and performed with a band, the audience will become deeply moved by the man's predicament. The audience listening to the sorrowful loss of love will be "moved to such acute anticipation."

Fifth Stanza: The Screaming Guitar

by that chord and the delay that follows,
they will not be able to sleep
unless you release with one finger
a scream from the throat of your guitar

The speaker then focuses on the drama that draws the audience's interest. He exaggerates by asserting that the listeners will not be able to sleep until the song is brought to a full dramatic close by the last note that is "release[d] with one finger / a scream from the throat of your guitar."

Sixth Stanza: That Common Theme

and turn your head back to the microphone
to let them know
you're a hard-hearted man
but that woman's sure going to make you cry.

Continuing with the drama of the last few bars of the song, the speaker highlights the last few lines that would express the following sentiment: "you're a hard-hearted man / but that woman's sure going to make you cry." Again, the speaker alludes to the common theme that runs through many blues tunes, that of a big, strong man can be brought to tears by the loss of his woman.

Three Poems read by Billy Collins

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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