Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States (2001 to 2003) is a Distinguished Professor at colleges in New York and Florida. The New York Times has called him “the most popular poet in America”, with his poetry books selling far beyond most volumes of poetry. His poem, The Blues, laced with humor, captures the essence of the blues. Here it is:
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.
Brilliant, isn’t it? I love the first couple of verses in particular, which point to the repeated first line of the typical blues verse. Take Robert Johnson’s Kind-Hearted Woman Blues, for example: “I love my baby, my baby she don’t love me” – repeated before the resolution of the verse “Really love that woman, can’t stand to leave her be.” Collins suggests that such is the disinterest in other’s pain, that the line needs to be repeated twice.
The point is made with good humor, but the “no one takes an immediate interest in the pain of others” strikes home. Too often we’re too caught up in our own worlds of self-interest, or maybe just the busyness of everyday life to be too worried about the pain of those around us. The blues always have been and always will be a stark reminder of the pain and suffering in the world – it may be at the level of the personal relationship where “your baby left you early this morning” or at the level of injustice in the world (B B King’s That’s Why I Sing the Blues catalogues the injustice suffered by his own community – “It seems like everybody got the blues”).
Ross Douthat in the New York Times recently reported on a Pew Survey on young adults in the United States which indicated that the Millennial Generation is marked by increased individualism – an “increasing absence of local, personal forms of fellowship and solidarity.” It would be unfair to lay this charge only at the door of Millennials, however – our entire society has been characterised by a consuming, self-orientated individualism for a very long time. In fact, the economic basis of our society in many ways is dependent upon this very thing and so the media and advertising industries urge us to keep acquiring, keep consuming, all predicated on our own personal comfort, convenience, development and well-being. Our dedicated self-interest numbs us from neighborly concern with the grief, pain and discomfort of others.
The Christian story, like the twice sung blues line, calls our attention to something beyond ourselves and our own interests. for this is a story of a God who entered in to the poverty, the squalor and messiness of human life so that we might be set free from our self-absorption in order to participate in God’s project of world-transformation, of love and peace, ears attuned keenly to the insistent cry of injustice all around us – the “pain of others.”