Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

James Olney


Since the beginning of the twentieth century, critics of African-American poetry have disagreed vehemently about poetic form. Some, like J. Saunders Redding, for instance, have expressed skepticism about poetry based upon oral forms. Others, like Sterling Brown, have argued that a viable poetics can be developed from black expressive forms. This dissertation analyzes the debate over black poetic form and traces the development of modernist and postmodernist poetics that have been shaped by the specific contours of African-American vernacular culture. Yet this study is not merely formalistic. Although "All Blues" describes a blues aesthetic by examining intersexual relationships between the poetry and oral forms, it also examines the role of poetry in cultural politics. While previous studies of African-American poetry have focused primarily upon content, "All Blues" assumes the challenge posed by Black Aesthetic critics and, later, Sherley Anne Williams. At the same time, this study demonstrates that it is possible to discuss the specificity of African-American style in the work of Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, Margaret Walker, Amiri Baraka, and Jayne Cortez without resorting to chauvinism. By examining the creative process in the blues tradition, we can observe a strategy among the poets that bears close resemblance. More specifically, we can identify three main bodies of blues poetics. Some poets riff upon, that is, mimic black oral forms; some poets fuse their dedication to vernacular culture with a concern for literary conventions; and some poets incarnate blues musicians. In addition, "All Blues" calls the form-versus-content opposition into question. Form becomes the blues poet's distinct method to contribute to the quest for African-American cultural autonomy. The reconceptualization of the notion of form allows critics to assess the work of a largely ignored poet like Kalamu ya Salaam who has used rhetoric as a poetic medium. Thus, "All Blues" charts the infusion of new forms into American literary discourse.