Songs For a Colored Singer by Elizabeth Bishop Essay

Songs For a Colored Singer by Elizabeth Bishop Essay

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"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...


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... Bishop says “curious […] fruit” (P4, L23). Holiday’s popular song predates the release of Bishop’s poem by seven years, 1939 and 1946 respectively. Bishop’s poem seems to have an influence on a famous poem written by Langston Hughes, “Dream Deferred.” In Hughes’ poem he eludes to years of African-American anger festering like a fruit, then exploding. The similar themes connect Bishop’s poem to Hughes’. Both poems foretell an eruption of anger coming from the African-American community.

     Bishop creates a poem which sounds similar to a song. The bluesy feel created by the structure along with the melancholy contents, form a perfect blues song. The poem chronicles the chaotic events of a colored domestic, who represents the plight of the African-American. Her helpless situation is a result of the vicious poverty cycle which traps African-American’s in permanent despair. Bishop ends the poem by forecasting an African-American uprising. Bishop believes African-American’s can only take so much, soon they will explode. Through Bishop’s use of simple rhymes, repetition of words and changing syllabic functions, this poem reads less like a typical poem, and more like a blues song.

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