Langston Hughes

October 17, 2006

langston-hughes.jpg
(1902-1967)

Major American poet, leading name in Harlem Renaissance poetry, premier poet of political left, international poet
Born in Joplin, Missouri in a racially segregated society where lynching was a growing problem
Wrote more than 20 poems on lynching alone
Descended from a distinguished abolitionist African-American family
Held long term same-sex relationships
Strongly influenced by a diverse range of poets: Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay, Amy Lowell, Carl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman
Captivated by African-American singers more than any writer
Attended columbia University for one year, but spent the time exploring the world of Harlem
Unlike most poets, was able to support himself through writing
Traveled as a journalist to Spain during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39
Notably inventive in his use of culural styles and materials in poetry: adapted blues and jazz forms as well as oral traditions
Paired poetry with illustrations to tell stories more vividly
Relied on performing arts and drama to create a multi-voiced poetry
Investigated by FBI because of campaigns against lynching and leftist affiliations during the Cold War: not permitted to assume position of Poet Laureate
Forced to tone down politics in poetry and could not travel outside the country until 1960
Became the image of a poet who combines artistic innovation and vitality with joyful humor and humanity and the effective expression of social justice

Quotations:

Oh, silver tree! / Oh, shining rivers of the soul!
In a Harlem cabaret / Six long-headed jazzers play. / A dancing girl whose eyes are bold / Lifts high a dress of silken gold.
Oh, singing tree! / Oh, shining rivers of the soul!
Were Eve’s eyes / In the first garden / Just a bit too bold? / Was Cleaopatra gorgeous / In a gown of gold?
Oh, shining tree! / Oh, silver rivers of the soul!
In a whirling cabaret / Sing long-headed jazzers play.

-Jazzonia (in whole)

An attempt to adapt jazz to poetry

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune, / Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon, / I heard a Negro play. / Down on Lenox Avenue the other night / By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light / He did a lazy sway … / He did a lazy sway … / To the tune o’ those Weary Blues. / With his ebony hands on each ivory key / He made that poor piano moan with melody. / O Blues! / Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool / He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool. / Sweet Blues! / Coming from a black man’s soul. / O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone / I head that Negro sing, that old piano moan – / ‘Ain’t got nobody in all this world, / Ain’t got nobody but ma self. / I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’ / And put ma troubles on the shelf.’ / Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor. / He played a few chords then he sang some more – / ‘I got the Weary Blues / And I can’t be satisfied. / God the Weary Blues / And can’t be satisfied – / I ain’t happy no mo’ / And I wish that I had died.’ / And far into the night he crooned that tune. / The stars went out and so did the moon. / The singer stopped playing and went to bed / While the Weary Blues echoed through his head. / He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

-The Weary Blues (in whole)
See Poetry Speaks

Transformation of isolated pain into solace, art, and human connection

I’ve known rivers: / I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My sould has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. / I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. / I looked upon the Nile and Raised the pyramids above it. / I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down th New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers: / Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

-The Negro Speaks of Rivers (in whole)
See Poetry Speaks

One of Hughes’ first poems, written in high school

I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother. / They send me to eat in the kitchen / When company comes, / But I laugh, / And eat well, / And grow strong.
Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table / When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare / Say to me, / ‘Eat in the kitchen,’ / Then.
Besides, / They’ll see how beautiful we are / And be ashamed-
I, too, am America.

-I, too (in whole)
See Poetry Archive

Compare to Walt Whitman’s “I Hear American Singing”

Oh, wash-woman / Arms elbow-deep in white suds, / Soul washed clean, Clothes washed clean, / I have many songs to sing you / Could I but find the words.
Was it four o’clock or six o’clock on a winter afternoon, I saw you wringing out the last shirt in Miss White Lady’s kitchen? Was it four o’clock or six o’clock? I don’t remember.
But I know, at seven one spring morning you were on Vermont Street with a bundle in your arms going to wash clothes. / And I know I’ve seen you in the New York subway in the late afternoon coming home from washing clothes.
Yes, I know you, wash-woman.
I know how you send your children to school, and high-school, and even college. / I know how you work to help your man when times are hard. / I know how you build your house up from the washtub and call it home. / And how you raise your churches from white suds for the service of the Holy God.
I’ve seen you winging, wash-woman. Out in the backyard garden under the apple trees, singing, hanging white clothes on long lines in the sunshine. / And I’ve seen you in church on Sunday morning singing, praising your Jesus because some day you’re going to sit on the right hand side of the Son of God and forget you ever were a wash-woman. And the aching back and the bundles of clothes will be unremembered then.
Yes, I’ve seen you singing.
So for you, O singing wash-woman, / For you, singing little brown woman, / Singing strong black woman, / Singing tall yellow woman, / Arms deep in white suds, / Soul washed clean, / Clothes washed clean, / For you I have / Many songs to sing / Could I but find the words.

-Song to a Negro Wash-Woman (in whole)

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: