Review of Tyehimba Jess’s Leadbelly

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Tyehimba Jess’s Leadbelly is a poetic exploration of the life of Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter.

Ledbetter was, as noted by The Lead Belly Foundation, “a musical giant [and] a legend…remembered as the ‘King of the 12-String Guitar.’” Leadbelly is very much a biography told through verse. Jess explores each phase of Ledbetter’s life by using all manner of poetry, including prose, letters, dialogue, lyricism, and persona. By inhabiting the voices of various characters, Jess is able to bring Ledbetter’s fascinating existence to life, while examining cultural issues such as racism, stereotypes, and classism. Ultimately, Leadbelly leaves the reader with a clear sense of certain moments of Ledbetter’s self and environment, even while it paradoxically leaves the reader wanting to learn more about this influential musician.

The first poem in Leadbelly conveys how Ledbetter got started with guitar lessons as a 12-year-old:

“i’d tote up from the swollen center of guitar,
its catch and slide caught between palms
and cradled ‘cross louisiana starlight” (Jess 9).

When we look at this poem, titled “leadbelly’s lessons,” we can see a variety of poetic devices in use that serve to establish the tone and voice of the rest of the book. In just the three lines above, we can see alliteration is present in “swollen center”; assonance in “caught…palms”; consonance in “louisiana starlight.” This poem explains how Ledbetter began to learn to play guitar: in a general store, the owner ordered Ledbetter to “hoist song” the way the owner “hoist[s] bourbon” (Jess 9). Jess also uses the metaphor of undressing a woman to explain the act of making music with the guitar: “undressing music from its wooden clothes” (Jess 9). Right off the bat, music is established as the central theme of the book. By using the theme of music, Jess is able to bring out other themes, including racism. One of the other things the general store owner taught Ledbetter is “the ways/of pure white envy” (Jess 10). In that general store, Ledbetter is first introduced to the wide gap between white and black. He’s taught to envy from the very young age of 12, setting the tone for the rest of his life. Jess is successful in using this introductory poem as an explanation for what he wants the rest of the book to accomplish. The book’s overarching themes are all established in this short piece.

After that introductory poem, Jess begins the first section of the book at the beginning of Ledbetter’s life, with poems written in the voices of Ledbetter’s parents, Wes and Sally. Each section of the book features poems that follow Ledbetter’s lifeline, from birth to death. Jess’s poems take the reader on a journey of low and high points throughout Ledbetter’s life, while also leading the reader on a discourse about the issues of race, society, and class, many times all in the same poem, as seen in “Ethnographer John Lomax Speaks of His Vocation”:

“I stake my claim on the breath of each Black
willing to open his mouth and spit out
southern legend’s soiled roots. I will blue
the pale ears of Ivy League lecture halls

with secrets snatched from between Negro jaws.” (Jess 66).

Some of Jess’s poems may seem hard to grasp without careful study, and even then they may elude even the most academic reader. Stephen Burt observes that “the poets of the New Thing eschew sarcasm and tread lightly with ironies, and when they seem hard to pin down, it is because they leave space for interpretations to fit.” Not all of Jess’s work fits into the New Thing paradigm, but his use of experimental forms and obtuse imagery certainly does seem to fit the highbrow requirements. For example, in the poem “the song speaks,” Jess describes several images that may leave the reader scratching his or her head (even though they are, without a doubt, beautifully worded):

“sticky with god,
i shove and smooth
my way up gullet,
hauling treasure
chest of fingerpop
and footstomp.” (Jess 79).

One other important point to make in this review is the musical quality evident throughout Leadbelly. Jess’s subject was a very influential musician, noted on Leadbelly.org as the “King of the 12-string,” so it is no accident that Jess’s poems contain a strong musical quality. Jess’s background as a performance poet (according to Heintz, “by the early 1990s he was making a name for himself as a performance poet”) allows him to focus on the tonal quality of his poems more so than a poet without a performance background would. Sonic devices such as assonance, consonance, alliteration, and repetition abound throughout Jess’s poems (some of which are seen in earlier examples in this review). As noted on the Web site for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Ledbetter’s “repertoire included diverse African-American styles from work songs, ring chants, cowboy songs, games, and Tin Pan Alley to the Delta blues”; Jess’s Leadbelly reflects this diversity.

This musical quality is different from the style of other contemporary poets such as Denise Duhamel. While Duhamel also uses persona poems to get into the character of Barbie in her book Kinky, she uses third person and a dry, droll tone of voice: “Born in 1980, she looks exactly like Black or White Barbie/…Shoppers/who complain she’s hard to find should check Lamston’s/or Woolworth’s” (Duhamel 21). Her book doesn’t follow the timeline of Barbie’s life and the poems don’t tell an overarching story the way Jess’s poems do. The poems are interconnected in that they offer commentary on the plasticization of society, but unlike Jess’s work, they do not offer the reader any additional information about their subject. Like Jess, Duhamel uses an influential icon as her character, but she doesn’t take it nearly as far as Jess does.

Jess’s lyrical style probably better compares to the work of Patricia Smith, who Heintz states, believes “performance has an absolute relationship to text.” Smith’s writing is passionate, energetic, and has a lyrical quality due to her slam poetry roots. She isn’t just writing for the page, but also for the stage, much the same way Jess is. For example, these lines from “Asking for a Heart Attack,” available on slamnation.com, show the musical quality of Smith’s writing:

“Aretha. Deep butter dipt, burnt pot liquor, twisted sugar cane,
Vaselined knock knees clacking extraordinary gospel.”

Smith’s subject matters are obviously not the same as Jess’s. However, they both infuse their writing with music, rhythm, and soul that is at odds with many of today’s contemporary poets, where the prevailing style seems to be a sort of detachment. Though Jess and Smith have both written persona poems as part of their repertoires, that sense of detachment isn’t there at all; they both whole-heartedly embrace their characters as they dive into them head first.

Perhaps because Jess embraced his cast of characters so completely, Leadbelly was a joy to read and process, providing beautiful poetry in both traditional and the more experimental New Thing formats. The reader also gets a thorough history lesson about a dramatic and influential musician who left an indelible mark upon American music. Leadbelly.org observes that Ledbetter’s “music still has a great influence on some of [today’s] greatest artists, both black and white”; in much the same way, Jess’s book will probably influence future poets when undertaking their own ambitious historical/societal/musical/experimental poetry collections. The thought-provoking social commentary throughout the poems is also a wonderful quality that serves to encourage readers to learn more. Leadbelly is one poet’s careful conclusion about a tumultuous character and time in history; readers will finish the book wanting to learn more so they can draw their own careful conclusions. Readers will marvel that Jess managed to impart so much impact into the space of a book of poetry, weaving a complete life together with the power of each individual character and poem.

Works Cited

Burt, Stephen. “The New Thing.” Boston Review. May/June 2009. 18 July 2009 <http://bostonreview.net/BR34.3/burt.php>.

Duhamel, Denise. “Hispanic Barbie.” Kinky. Washington: Orchises Press, 1997. 21.

Heintz, Kurt. “The Idea of the Father.” The Book of Voices. 2000. 18 July 2009 <http://voices.e-poets.net/JessT/home.html>.

Heintz, Kurt. “Chapter 1: Patricia Smith.” The Book of Voices. 1999. 25 July 2009. <http://voices.e-poets.net/SmithP/>.

Jess, Tyehimba. Leadbelly. Amherst: Verse Press, 2005.

“Lead Belly.” The Lead Belly Foundation. 2004. 21 July 2009 <http://www.leadbelly.org/leadbelly.html>.

“Lead Belly.” Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. 2009. 21 July 2009 <http://www.folklife.si.edu/center/legacy/lead.aspx>.

Smith, Patricia. “Asking for a Heart Attack.” Slamnation. 25 July 2009. <http://www.slamnation.com/archive/HeartAttack/>.


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