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.

1 comment:

  1. The technique of leaving some of the poetic text to be answered by the reader reminds me of country blues songs. They'd often drop out part of the chorus, or play it on the guitar rather than sing it. Great post, Zach!