"Songs For a Colored Singer" by Elizabeth Bishop
What is a song but a poem set to music? Take away the music from a good song and the rhythm of the words will create its own musical sound. “Songs For a Colored Singer”, a poem written by Elizabeth Bishop, is a song without the music. Bishop’s use of repetitive rhymes creates the lyrical, song like, structure to her poem. The voice of the song belongs to a black woman who encounters adversity throughout the poem. The sum of the elements, a black woman singing about hard times, equal one distinct style of music, namely the blues. Bishop divides the poem into four parts. Through each part the poem, Bishop uncovers different aspects of the colored woman. What Bishop reveals is the difficult situations which face underprivileged black citizens in America. Bishop’s poem has similarities to a song by Billie Holiday, and is linked to a Langston Hughes poem. By using the voice of a colored singer, Bishop exposes the inequality of early twentieth century African-Americans.
Bishop examines the life of a colored domestic woman and portrays the difficult existence through song. Part one of the poem portrays a melancholy domestic who is having trouble with her man, a classic situation for the blues. The use of simple rhymes and syllable structure in the first stanza forecasts the lyrical tone of the poem. To create a sense of flow, the first and third stanzas have identical rhyme patterns, and the second and fourth stanzas also mirror each other. The use of the same line at the end of the second and fourth stanzas, “Le Roy, you’re earning too much money now,” (Part 1. Lines 13 & 26), distinguishes this poem as a song. Rarely are lines repeated in poems, but the use of repetition is essential in songs, because of the need for a chorus. Part one of the poem brings to light the inequality among race and class. Due to the economic conditions of African-Americans, they find themselves working as domestics for much wealthier Caucasians. The singer expresses the difficulty working as a domestic, as she witnesses firsthand the inequalities of the classes, “none of these things I can see belong to me” (P1 L3-4), she continues to describe in detail the differences between the colored and the whites, “they got a lot of closet space; we got a suit case.” (P1, L7-8) The circumstances of the colored singer establish the melancholy tone of the poem. Put to music the situation makes a perfect blues song.
Confronted with adversity the singer is faced with a situation of fight or flight. In part two of the poem the colored singer, seeing her lover acting unfaithful, is confused on who to blame, first blaming her lover, “this occasion’s all his fault” (P2, L4), then herself, “perhaps that occasion was my fault” (P2, L13), and finally her lover again, “for this occasion’s all his fault” (P2, L27). Regardless who is at fault, the blues singer wants to leave town, and gives every indication she will go,...