Friday, July 30, 2010

Rediscovering Langston Hughes

I have rediscovered Langston Hughes. I had read his famous poems—“I, Too” and “A Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Harlem”—and even taught them in class. I appreciated his poems and his loose, jazzy interpretation of rhyme and meter—playing with it instead of abandoning it like so many Modernists did. But based on my limited selection, I found him unsubtle and a bit preachy.

I take it all back, I swear.

Thumbing through an anthology, I came across “Old Walt” without realizing it was Hughes’:

Old Walt Whitman
Went finding and seeking,
Finding less than sought
Seeking more than found,
Every detail minding
Of the seeking or the finding.

Pleasured equally
In seeking as in finding,
Each detail minding,
Old Walt went seeking
And finding.
I liked it; I liked how it played with rhyme and repetition, enjoying itself but not taking itself to seriously, not droning. It almost had the feel of a triolet—maybe a jazz triolet. Then I saw it was by Langston Hughes, and, surprised, began to read other poems of his I had never read before.

One thing that I enjoy are his little sketches of Harlem life. Hughes often writes in the voice of a character or includes dialogue.

Put on yo’ red silk stockings,
Black gal.
Go out an’ let de white boys
Look at yo’ legs.
He plays his authorial cards close to his chest. We aren’t told what to think—only what to see and hear. He keeps his rhyme and meter loose and incorporates it subtlety and effortlessly into the scenarios he paints:

Copper's whistle!
Patrol bell!

Precinct Station.
Iron cell.
Headlines in press:

And part of his playing with language extends to letting you finish lines in your head, or switching them suddenly. I’ve seen this used as a petty gag in some light verse, but look at this:

Dream Boogie

Good morning, daddy!
Ain't you heard
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred?
Listen closely:
You'll hear their feet
Beating out and beating out a—

You think
It's a happy beat?

Listen to it closely:
Ain’t you heard
something underneath
like a—

What did I say?

I'm happy!
Take it away!
Hey, pop!

The interplay between two voices, what is said and left unsaid, the way he sets up the unspoken lines, the ambiguity… I love it. Though the mop confuses me.

One more poem now. I can’t believe I had never read this one.

Frederick Douglass: 1817-1895

Douglass was someone who,
Had he walked with wary foot
And frightened tread,
From very indecision
Might be dead,
Might have lost his soul,
But instead decided to be bold
And capture every street,
On which he set his feet,
To route each path
Toward freedom’s goal,
To make each highway
Choose his compass’ choice
To all the world cried,
Hear my voice!…
Oh, to be a beast, a bird,
Anything but a slave! he said.

Who would be free
Themselves must strike
The first blow, he said.

He died in 1895.

He is not dead.

What I love about it most is the building energy that lands with a resounding crash on the last lines. For that ending to work, for those last four words to resonate like they do, requires a perfect convergence of sound and ideas. This just goes to show that the success of a poem lies in its sound, even when we read it silently. A “prose poem” is no kind of poem at all, and when free verse works, it works because it nevertheless uses sound skillfully, as skillfully as a jazz player, though following no set pattern, uses pitch, rhythm, intonation and phrasing. Langston Hughes does jazz with words, with perfect blend of intellect and emotion.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


About me: I am from the Pacific Northwest.  I teach writing.  I play fiddle and banjo.  I have a cat, whose photograph you see to your right.

I am the father of two daughters, a two- and a four-year-old.  Maybe because of that this poem caught my attention recently:

He was so beautiful at four I scarce could look
At him without a kind of squeezing of
My heart, a tugging and a throbbing that took
My breath away, and though we call this love,
I cannot name it that, for so debased
A word cannot approach the flood
Of feeling he awoke in me or taste
The savage surging crisis in my blood.
A child to hold is unlike any other
Investment we can make. A heart grown hoarse
With care is found generally in the mother,
But fathers also yield to nature’s force
And feel their hearts torn open and exposed,
More hostage to this care than they supposed.
"Fathers", Robert Daseler

I don't own Daseler's 1998 book, Levering Avenue, and so can't review it properly (not that it is "new", but this blog is just getting started).  From the poems I did read, though, I can say I love Daseler's sonnets, and not just because they are sonnets.  It takes guts to write in a form so constrained and weighed down by tradition, but it takes skill to do it well.  The verses are creative, too, another plus when writing in a traditional form, and Daseler keeps the language sounding natural, not stilted, and keeps the rhymes interesting as well: "ideas" with "azaleas", "practice" with "cactus".  He uses the sonnet like John Donne used it: for contemplating deeply (as opposed to its other established uses--wooing and pining).  It is a shame that, so far as I can tell, Daseler hasn't written any more recently.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Here it is--the first post.  What I hope this blog becomes is a place to review and promote new poetry by up-and-coming poets.  It's a hard world for poets, because honestly, most people just don't care, and those that do seem to be interested in one of two things: 1) the well-anthologized classic poets that everyone knows and studies; or 2) their own poetry.  Why does no one follow new books of poems the way they follow new novels or biographies?  My guess is that firstly, a vicious circle is in play: its hard to get new poetry noticed, so no one promotes it, so no one notices it.  The poetry section in bookstores is tiny as it is; there's not much room on the shelf between the critical literary editions and the themed anthologies.  Secondly, people who love poetry are kind of wary of unknown poets.  I admit, that judgement is based solely on myself.  But face it--a lot of poetry that gets written is actually pretty bad, and trawling the Internet for new poetry will likely turn up dross penned by self-absorbed amateurs.  It's hard for quality poetry to keep its head above the swill, and as a result, readers have to do a lot of sifting to find something good.  What I'd really like is a source where someone reviews new collections and recommends them (or not) with a quick glimpse at style, tone, and subject matter, some excerpts, and some comparisons to other poets.

So here you go.

If you are a publisher I invite you to e-mail me at concerning recent titles, so long as they are available on Amazon.  In the mean time, I'll post some thoughts on poets and poetry in general and in particular.