Jelly Roll: A Blues

Overview

In this jaunty and intimate collection, Kevin Young invents a language as shimmying and comic, as low-down and high-hearted, as the music from which he draws inspiration. With titles such as ?Stride Piano,? ?Gutbucket,? and ?Can-Can,? these poems have the sharp completeness of vocalized songs and follow a classic blues trajectory: praising and professing undying devotion (?To watch you walk / cross the room in your black / corduroys is to see / civilization start?), only to end up lamenting the loss of love (?No ...
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Overview

In this jaunty and intimate collection, Kevin Young invents a language as shimmying and comic, as low-down and high-hearted, as the music from which he draws inspiration. With titles such as “Stride Piano,” “Gutbucket,” and “Can-Can,” these poems have the sharp completeness of vocalized songs and follow a classic blues trajectory: praising and professing undying devotion (“To watch you walk / cross the room in your black / corduroys is to see / civilization start”), only to end up lamenting the loss of love (“No use driving / like rain, past / where you at”). As Young conquers the sorrow left on his doorstep, the poems broaden to embrace not just the wisdom that comes with heartbreak but the bittersweet wonder of triumphing over adversity at all.

Sexy and tart, playfully blending an African American idiom with traditional lyric diction, Young’s voice is pure American: joyous in its individualism and singing of the self at its strongest.

Author Biography: Kevin Young’s first book, Most Way Home, was selected for the National Poetry Series and won the Zacharis First Book Award from Ploughshares. His second book of poems, To Repel Ghosts, a “double album” based on the work of the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, was a finalist for the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Young’s poetry and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, and Callaloo. He is editor of the anthology Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers and the forthcoming Everyman’s Library Pocket Poet anthology Blues Poems. A former Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University, Young is currently Ruth Lilly Professor of Poetry at Indiana University.

Finalist for the 2003 National Book Award, Poetry

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
In his impressive third collection, Kevin Young uses the blues as a template, fusing popular music and black vernacular and thereby placing himself squarely in the African-American poetic tradition pioneered by such writers as Langston Hughes. — David Mills
Publishers Weekly
The careful, colloquial, lyrical Most Way Home (1995) established Young among the best-known poets of his emerging generation; this third book will satisfy many readers' long-held hopes. Despite the title, Young's new work relies not just on blues but on a plethora of musical genres; poems (almost all in short, two-line stanzas) take their titles and sometimes their sounds from older popular genres ("Dixieland" "Ragtime" and "Calypso") and classical forms ("Scherzo," "Nocturne"), bringing things up to date with "Disaster Movie Theme Music." Young matches these various models with a unity of subject: like an old-fashioned sonnet sequence writ large, the book chronicles the start, progress, and catastrophic end of a love affair. Early on, poems like "Shimmy" describe the birth of passion: "You are, lady,/ admired-secret// something kept/ afar." In "Riff," Young comes up with a precise, slow-motion polyphony: "I am all itch,/ total, since you done// been gone-zero/ sum, empty set." Despite the self-imposed, consistent limit of short lines, the verse here shows Young to be not only a terrific love poet but one of real emotional variety: after a sonnet sequence (called "Sleepwalking Psalms") Young turns from excitement and romance to disillusion, breakups and regrets ("Joy is the mile-/ high ledge"), concluding with poems addressed to landscapes, and with an elegy for a dead male friend. Young has daringly likened himself in earlier poems and prose to Langston Hughes: this versatile lyric tour de force may well justify the ambitious comparison. (Jan.) Forecast: While Young gained a reputation with poems in journals (and with his anthology Giant Steps), his sophomore effort To Repel Ghosts, a narrative poem about Jean-Michel Basquiat, was not quite a breakthrough, especially as its publisher went under. This long but reader-friendly third collection should do far better; expect strong reviews nationwide. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Though you won't find any musical notation in Young's third poetry collection, it's clear that the rhythms of traditional Delta and urban blues form the lattice against which these tightly spun lyrics, most written in couplets, are set. Young understands the blues as an effective medium for seduction and praise, yearning and loss, and while Jelly Roll pays homage to the traditional stylings of Robert Johnson and other seminal blues artists, its wry sense of humor ("Hottentot to trot/ you are not"), elliptically paced rhymes (past/ path, air/ stares), and associative freedom ("You are some sort/ of September// I look for your red car everywhere") evince a sophisticated, contemporary literary sensibility that never compromises the characteristic directness of the form. Young minimizes sexual swagger, preferring instead to explore the hazardous dimensions of emotional commitment with gritty grace and disarming candor ("Woman, knock me down,/ out, anoint-// just don't leave me lone// like God/ done, promising return"). While the collection's extended length might work against the economy of its individual poems, Young's achievement is nonetheless admirable, attesting to both the resilience of the blues and the skill of its talented practitioner.-Fred Muratori, Cornell Univ. Lib., Ithaca, NY
From the Publisher
“It is one thing to acknowledge that the blues are a kind of poetry, but another to produce a book of authentic poetry that constitutes a new kind of blues. Tender, sassy, and just plain cool, the poems in Kevin Young’s Jelly Roll uniquely twine together the roots of both music and language. You can almost hear the three chords in the background.”
—Billy Collins

“In Young’s alchemy, succulent scraps are gathered from daily life, distilled, and emerge, finally, as portable nuggets of home, carried wherever the poet may travel.”
Voice Literary Supplement

“This poet’s gift of storytelling and understanding of the music inherent in the oral tradition of language re-creates for us an inner history which is compelling and authentic and American.”
—Lucille Clifton

“As a poet, Young is as dazzlingly agile and as hard-hitting as Jack Johnson in his prime.”
—Lorenzo Thomas

“Young takes the great African-American tradition of speaking the pain of love and tosses it gracefully into the air, flips it, twists it, catches it and sets it on its feet again . . . the poems [are] uncannily filled with wit and self-awareness, alive to their very bones, sexy and sad and true . . . Like any great blues, Young’s is universal.”
–Time Out New York

“Young has created a joyful and sorrowing and very funny narrative of love found and lost and selfhood ruefully gained amid the ruins . . . wonderful, linguistically inventive poems in which the old is made new again.”
–Fredric Koeppel, Memphis Commercial Appeal

“Impressive . . . Young uses the blues as a template, fusing popular music and black vernacular and thereby placing himself squarely in the African-American poetic tradition pioneered by such writers as Langston Hughes.”
–David Mills, Washington Post Book World

“Kevin Young has, at age 32, already conquered the heights of the poetry world . . . To its tradition of strong American poets, from Emerson to Eliot to Ashbery, Harvard College can now add Young.”
–George Held, Philadelphia Inquirer

“Enormously refreshing . . . You can hear the sound of this voice alive on the vivid page.”
–Mark Jarman, The Hudson Review

“Splendidly inventive and evocative.”
–Fredric Koeppel, Memphis Commercial Appeal

“Young [is] not only a terrific love poet but one of real emotional variety . . . Young has daringly likened himself . . . to Langston Hughes: this versatile lyric tour de force may well justify the ambitious comparison.”
–Publishers Weekly

“Intimate . . . Young’s utilitarian use of language is often amazing in its ability to convey so much with so few words.”
–Regis Behe, Pittsburgh Tribune

“Young maintains the essence of the blues . . . while reshaping them into vibrant form. . . If blues musician Robert Johnson had collaborated with haiku master Basho, the result might have been Jelly Roll.”
–John Hawn, Indianapolis Star

“A rollicking book of poems filled with calls, hollers and shouts . . . This book rocks and it rolls.”
–David Citino, Columbus Dispatch

“Impressive . . . Young uses the blues as a template, fusing popular music and black vernacular and thereby placing himself squarely in the African-American poetic tradition pioneered by such writers as Langston Hughes.”
–David Mills, Washington Post Book World

“Kevin Young has, at age 32, already conquered the heights of the poetry world . . . To its tradition of strong American poets, from Emerson to Eliot to Ashbery, Harvard College can now add Young.”
–George Held, Philadelphia Inquirer

“Enormously refreshing . . . You can hear the sound of this voice alive on the vivid page.”
–Mark Jarman, The Hudson Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375414602
  • Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/14/2003
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 6.36 (w) x 7.84 (h) x 0.96 (d)

Meet the Author

Kevin Young’s first book, Most Way Home, was selected for the National Poetry Series and won the Zacharis First Book Award from Ploughshares. His second book of poems, To Repel Ghosts, a “double album” based on the work of the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, was a finalist for the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Young’s poetry and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, and Callaloo. He is editor of the anthology Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers and the forthcoming Everyman’s Library Pocket Poet anthology Blues Poems. A former Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University, Young is currently Ruth Lilly Professor of Poetry at Indiana University.

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Read an Excerpt

"Chorale"
Quite difficult, belief.
Quite terrible, faith
that the night, again,
will nominate
you a running mate–
that we are of the elect
& have not yet
found out. That the tide
still might toss us up
another–what eyes
& stars, what teeth!
such arms, alive–
someone we will, all
night, keep. Not
just these spiders
that skitter & cobweb,
share my shivering bed.
-----------------------------------------------
"Ditty"
You, rare as Georgia
snow. Falling
hard. quick.
Candle shadow.
The cold
spell that catches
us by surprise.
The too-early blooms,
tricked, gardenias blown about,
circling wind. Green figs.
Nothing stays. I want
to watch you walk
the hall to the cold tile
bathroom--all
night, a lifetime.
**Click here to send this poem as an animated ecard:
-----------------------------------------------
"Harvest Song"
Lover you leave me
autumn, tilling, a man
tending his yard,
or one not even
his own. Outskirts
of town a farmer
one-armed, walks his fields
into fire--my neighbor
on his knees with a razor
trims his lawn. Next door
I am in the pines--
grass thirsting, and up
to here in weeds--
poison, neglect,
I have tried to forget--
nothing works. Let
the birds rabbits
termites have the run
of the place, the worms,
I will take them in
-----------------------------------------------
"Elegy, Niagara Falls"
for Bert King, d. 1996
Here snow starts
but does not
stick--stay--
is not enough
to cover
the bare thaw--
edground.
Grief is the god that gets us--
good--in the end--
Here--churches
let out
early--in time
to catch the lunch
special--at my local
hotel. Sunday--
even the bus
boy has your
face. And still
having heard
some days later you
were dead--
I haven't caught
sight--day

Copyright© 2003 by Kevin Young
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Table of Contents

Epithalamion 2
Cakewalk 7
Dixieland 9
Siren 10
Rhythm & Blues 11
Shimmy 12
Zoot 13
Etude 14
Ditty 15
Ragtime 16
Jingle 17
Boogie-Woogie 18
Gutbucket 20
Field Song 21
Cheer 22
Blue Movie 23
Jook 25
Summer Song 26
Overture 29
Jitterbug 30
Early Blues 32
Fantasia 33
Aubade 36
Blackbottom 37
Nones 38
Boogaloo 39
Mic Check 40
Tune 42
Can-Can 43
Boasts 44
Song of Smoke 46
Swing 48
Stride Piano 49
Prelude 50
Errata 51
Nocturne 53
Break 57
Recitative 58
Aria 59
Chorus 60
Duet 61
Blues 63
Jive 65
Rhapsody 67
Sorrow Song 69
Vespers 70
Player Piano 71
Harvest Song 74
Foxtrot 75
Reed Song 76
Country (& Western) 79
Riff 81
Bluegrass 83
Disaster Movie Theme Music 84
Madrigal 88
Drum Talk 89
Calypso 91
Gumbo 94
Encore 95
Locomotive Songs 96
Autumn Song 99
Busking 101
Doo Wop 102
Banjo 103
Funk 105
Every Day Since 107
The Television We Bought 107
Soon I'll Thank You 108
Sometimes I Peel Like the Stargazers 109
When I Said I Didn't Mind 109
Stumbling Home 110
There are No More Saints 111
I Love You the Way a Liar Lovls 111
Barbeque Dreams 112
These Days So Hot You Forget 113
Chorale 114
Torch Song 115
Fish Story 116
Jubilee 118
Suite 119
Envoy 123
Scherzo 124
Ramble 128
Anthem 130
Tacit 131
Honky Tonk 132
Saxophone Solo 133
Slide Guitar 135
Plainsong 136
Lyre 137
Requiem 140
Dirge 142
Deep Song 144
Evensong 145
Opera 147
Song of Sowing 148
Rock 149
Interlude 150
& Roll 151
Mood 152
Instrumental 154
Pastorale 155
Vows 164
Muzak 165
Hero 166
Song of Solstice 168
Coda 170
Parlor Song 171
Intermezzo 175
Threnody 177
Cotillion 179
Late Blues 181
Litany 182
Elegy, Niagara Falls 188
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