But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours. (James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues,” 137)
The prophet Isaiah was called to bring good news to the afflicted, to bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, comfort all who mourn, offering a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, anointing with the oil of gladness (Isaiah 61: 1-3). Wouldn’t it be nice if all our poems and stories, our literary prose, could do this?
Sometimes it does, in spite of data-driven black Suits tailored in their assigned slots at endless, corporate-oak tables, grinning behind manicured hands, asking, rhetorically, how one can profit from reading and writing poems and stories puzzled with complex, human ambiguities, margins of error. They build bigger storehouses and take their ease, guffawing at creativity not cost effective.
From the afflicted, the brokenhearted, there is mostly silence. No need to bother with beauty, the music of language, ears having turned stone from the twitter of breaking news—downturns, collateral damage, the poor always with us, homeless on street corners holding up cardboard sermons, the horror, the horror. With us.
Two of my favorite fiction writers are Bernard Malamud and James Baldwin. In Malamud’s short story “Idiots First,” Mendel, old and dying, lunges at Death, personified as the black-bearded stranger Ginzberg, and begins to choke him. Ginzberg thrusts his icy, dagger fingers around Mendel’s heart as Mendel gasps out, “‘. . . don’t you understand what it means human?’” (21). And Death sees himself reflected in Mendel’s eyes as a “shimmering, starry, blinding light that produced darkness” (21). Astonished, he asks, “‘Who me?’” (21) and loosens his grip.
In James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues,” Sonny, a jazz pianist, interprets the blues for his listeners:
Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. . . . Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. (140)
Like all single-minded artists, Sonny makes his song our song. Each semester, writers still gather in creative writing workshops to help each other discover how the beauty and music of language can make a difference, transforming, through the creative process, both writer and reader, sharing “what it means human,” singing our song.
Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” Going To Meet The Man, by Baldwin, Vintage, 1995, pp. 101-41.
Malamud, Bernard. “Idiots First.” Idiots First, by Malamud, Pocket Books, 1975, pp. 11-21.