ENGL 310: Modern Poetry

Lecture 15

 - Langston Hughes


The poetry of Langston Hughes is considered as a representation of the African-American experience. The distinctive concerns of Hughes’s poetic project are juxtaposed with the works of other modernists, such as Pound, Eliot, Frost, and Stevens.  Hughes’s interest in and innovative use of musical forms, such as blues and jazz, is explored with particular attention to their role in African-American culture, as well as their use by Hughes to forge an alternative to dominant modes of expression within the modernist canon.

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Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 - Lecture 15 - Langston Hughes

Chapter 1. Langston Hughes Poem: “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: Langston Hughes is our subject today. Let’s start with a poem you probably know. It’s on page 687. It’s really the poem for which Hughes is perhaps most known and was first known. He composed it when he was eighteen years old. It is “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” You can see that it’s dedicated to W.E.B. Dubois. Dubois was the important leader and speaker who was the editor of the magazine The Crisis, which published this poem. And The Crisis had a circulation of 100,000 readers at least, if not more, and is in that way quite a debut to have. And it put Hughes immediately in a political magazine, in a race magazine, and in some ways in a popular magazine, not one of the little magazines of modernism.

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human
blood in human veins. My soul 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 to
New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turned all golden in the sunset. I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Hughes’s speaker is a particularized voice, an “I,” at the same time that he is a general one, “The Negro.” The Negro speaks of and for a people, as a representative figure. Like Hart Crane, Hughes returns to Walt Whitman, Walt Whitman in his ambition to speak of and for America. At the same time, unlike Crane, Hughes takes on Whitman’s versification – Whitman’s ways of making a line, his free verse, his paratactic style in which things are listed – as opposed to Crane’s crumpled and condensed quatrains, stanzas. Here, the relation between the particular and the general, between the individual and a type, is one of the poem’s subjects. It is a poem about knowledge, about identity, and about history, too.

What the “I” knows is rivers. We learn just a few things about those rivers. They are ancient as the world. They are primordial. They are even, it seems, prior to the human in this sense, prior to human blood which conventionally is a way of representing race, of speaking about race. So, the rivers are older it seems than any race, and yet they’re also an image of racial blood and flowing.

Hughes is writing about a universal from a particular point of view. The flowing of rivers is like the flowing of blood in the poem. And to know them is to know what is under or inside particular racial experience at the deepest level. In this sense, we might paraphrase that title, “The Negro Speaks of Human Life and History, as The Negro Has Known It.” It’s a poem concerned with human life and history, the very most general terms of experience from the particular perspective of the black speaker and from the perspective of black experience. As the poem goes on, the rivers are named and localized in history: the Euphrates, origin of civilization and the site of the Jewish captivity in Babylon; the Congo evoking Africa and its people; the Nile, site of the pyramids, those archetypal human monuments, fixed in place and pointed to the sky and in that sense counter-posed to the flowing river. Being The Negro here means knowing all of these places.

The poem begins interestingly in the perfect present tense: “I’ve known,” “I’ve known”; “My soul has grown.” This is an interesting tense that evokes simultaneously the past and the present, suggests a past carried over and into the present. Then in that third stanza, the poem shifts into the simple past: “I bathed,” “I built,” “I looked,” “I heard.” The Mississippi, the line about the Mississippi, continues this pattern but then in the middle of the line breaks out of it: “I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.” There’s a way in which the story of Lincoln and the freeing of the slaves that Hughes gets to at that point seems to break out of the particular and then reach into this perfect present tense to evoke some kind of ongoing experience, moving from the past to the present again. And then the poem goes back into that perfect present. There’s a sense of past action that is ongoing, and active, present in the poem.

The rivers, they’re “deep,” dark, “dusky.” They also, at this pivotal moment in the poem, turn “golden.” The poem projects a view of black history in which to be black means simultaneously to be the product of black experience across history, at particular moments – particular moments, particular times – and also involved in the deepest trans-historical meanings of the human. The journey that the poem describes links different times and places and ultimately white and black when Lincoln, America’s white President, goes down to New Orleans and resolves to end slavery.

This is a remarkable poem for a young man to write. Let me hold up this interesting photo for a second. This is a picture of Hughes still in the mid-twenties when his work was just being read for the first time. It’s a remarkable poem, I think, for a young poet to begin with. You could compare it to other early, sort of inaugurating or initiating poems that we’ve talked about, such as Crane’s “Legend” or “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and other sorts of entries into poetry. We could compare its vision of the past, too, to that which we find in perhaps Pound or Eliot, which leads me to this general question of how do we place Langston Hughes in this course and more generally how do we position the black language and experience in his work in the general context of modern poetry?

Chapter 2. Black Voices in Modern Poetry [00:10:26]

Where else in this course does The Negro speak? Have you seen black people or heard black voices in other poems? Blackness figures in Frost, interestingly, as a kind of charged symbolic color but in a very generalized way that isn’t linked immediately to race, although it certainly could be seen to in certain contexts. You could say the same thing, I think, about Stevens; although, you do, in Stevens, encounter certain black figures, including the word “nigger” in one poem. There’s no question, though, that in Stevens and in Frost, the poetry doesn’t aspire to, doesn’t pretend to, represent the experience of African Americans. Marianne Moore, whom we’ll read soon, has a poem called “Black Earth.” When Ezra Pound read it, he wrote to her and asked, since he didn’t know – he had never met her – was she Ethiopian? This is a truly crazy question but an interesting one. In this poem Moore speaks about an elephant and from the point of view of an elephant in ways that might seem to possibly speak for black people, but only on the level of fable or allegory.

Crane comes closer. If you turn back a few pages in your anthology to the Crane section, the first poem in that selection is called “Black Tambourine.” That’s on page 607. That poem describes, again, a kind of symbolic, generalized type of the black man as a figure trapped in what Crane called a “mid-kingdom” in popular imagination – the mid-kingdom between man and beast. Crane sees the black entertainer as a kind of figure of the artist, something like his tramps, his wanderers, Charlie Chaplin. Crane had initially intended to include in “The Bridge” a section that was to be a dramatic monologue spoken by a Negro porter on a train. That plan fell away, but there are still traces of that intention in his section of the poem called “The River,” which tries to evoke aspects of black experience, to integrate jazz, blues, and spirituals into Crane’s poetry and make them part of the history that “The Bridge” tells.

Crane might have had as one model for the inclusion of African-American expressive forms, surprisingly, perhaps, Eliot. When “O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag” – when that breaks into The Waste Land, jazz and a distinctively African-American form also enter Eliot’s poem. Eliot was writing, however, from the point of view of white Europe, and blacks tend not to figure in his poetry except perhaps as figures of otherness, those perhaps hooded hoards that swarm across the plains in The Waste Land. The Beinecke includes in its Ezra Pound Papers an interesting selection of poems published with Eliot’s juvenilia not so long ago; a selection of poems that circulated between Pound and Eliot and certain other friends, which are obscene racist limericks that Eliot wrote about King Bolo and his big, black, bastard queen. This, too, is part of Eliot’s oeuvre, though not part of the public form of it, and it’s important information about at least one way in which black life figured in the high modernist imagination of Eliot and others.

Here’s that photo I started to show a moment ago. I suppose Hughes is the only modernist poet who begins as a busboy. This is a photo from 1925, taken at the Wardman Park Hotel for a newspaper story about Hughes. Hughes had been, it seems, discovered by the poet Vachel Lindsay, at lunch when Hughes, or so the anecdote goes, presented his poems to Lindsay, and Lindsay, taken with them, went on to read them that night at a reading Lindsay was giving. Of course, this was all carefully orchestrated by Hughes. If he’s a busboy, he is also a poet and wants – he’s really, in a sense, almost in costume there and posing for the newspaper photos. But it’s an interesting and important image of the man Hughes was as he began to write poems like “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”

If white poetry turns away from African-American people and their experience in modernism, Hughes also himself intended to turn away from white poetry. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” that prose piece I’ve asked you to read at the end of your anthology on page 964, makes this argument very forcefully. It begins by Hughes contrasting his own intention as an artist with that of one of the most promising of the young Negro poets who, as Hughes interprets his ambition, wants to be like a white poet and in that sense would like to be white. Hughes is writing here about Countee Cullen, a rival artist whose work you can sample on page 727 and following in your anthology. Hughes wants to get out of the curious condition of wanting to “write white,” so to speak, by redefining what it would mean to sing in poetry. On page 965 he juxtaposes two black audiences: one what he calls “self-styled ‘high-class’ Negroes,” that represent bourgeois norms or the aspiration to them and that seek what Hughes calls “Nordic” culture; and he contrasts them rather to another expression of black life with which he identifies himself.

…[These] are the low-down folks, the so-called common element, and they are the majority [he writes] – may the Lord be praised! The people who have their nip of gin on Saturday nights and are not too important to themselves or the community, or too well fed, or too learned to watch the lazy world go round. They live on Seventh Street in Washington or State Street in Chicago and they do not particularly care whether they are like white folks or anybody else. Their joy runs, bang! into ecstasy. Their religion soars to a shout. Work maybe a little today, rest a little tomorrow. Play awhile. Sing awhile. O, let’s dance! These common people are not afraid of spirituals as for a long time their more intellectual brethren were, and jazz is their child.

And he continues. He juxtaposes ecstasy, shouting, and jazz against what he calls here “American standardizations.” They furnish a wealth of colorful distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their individuality, their individuality in the face of American standardizations.

And perhaps these common people will give to the world its truly great Negro artist, the one who is not afraid to be himself [and which I, Langston Hughes, aspire to be].

These are important statements. They show Hughes’s ambitions; they show him positioning himself in relation to another African-American writer, other African-American audiences for culture. In making the move that he is doing here – a move that’s really deeply influential in African-American literature and poetry, which as a whole descends from Hughes rather than from Countee Cullen – Hughes is still, however, doing something similar, after all, to the other modern poets we’ve been reading in this course. And I want to suggest some of the continuities between Hughes and these other writers.

Chapter 3. Continuities between Langston Hughes and Other Modern Poets [00:21:31]

Like Yeats, for example, Hughes wanted to be a representative figure, to speak for a people; and we speak of the Irish Renaissance just as we speak of the Harlem Renaissance, of which Hughes was a central figure. Like Williams, like Moore, like Crane, and like Frost also, Hughes was very conscious of being an American poet, eschewing European examples, for the most part, and seeking to bring into poetry lives and language that had not been seen previously as poetic material. At the same time, like Pound and like Eliot, Hughes was interested in a long historical view, and he makes links between people of different times and places in what was a global vision, for Hughes, of history. Like Crane, Hughes published his first book in 1926, The Weary Blues. Like Crane, Hughes is – you could call him a second-generation modernist. He’s consciously coming after figures like Eliot and Pound, and Yeats and Frost for that matter. This book, too, is published by Knopf, Alfred Knopf: publisher of Wallace Stevens’s first book, Harmonium. So, Hughes is, in that way, very much part of the same New York poetry world in which Stevens and Crane and others are appearing.

Like Frost, Hughes wanted to get vernacular speech into poetry, and like Frost, Hughes for the most part did not write for Little Magazines, but rather popular ones, as I was suggesting. In fact, both Frost and Hughes went on to make a living in poetry, and they have a kind of national fame, a general readership that really none of our other poets did. Like Pound, like Yeats in the teens, Hughes is interested in what he calls “a naked style,” a kind of ascetic aesthetic. Like the other poets we’ve been reading, Hughes is a city poet. He’s a metropolitan poet, and he styles himself, as we’ve just seen, against middle-class tastes and norms and expectations. And importantly, like the other moderns, he finds no consolation in traditional religion, even while he sometimes works with spirituals and often evokes Christian motifs in his poetry.

In all these ways, Hughes is, I think, helpful to read at this point in the semester, partly because his affinities with the other moderns, once you start to recognize them, help us to see a kind of whole picture. But then, just having said that, we have to start talking about Hughes’s difference. If he is an American poet, he is just as importantly an African-American poet. If he is an internationalist, like Pound and Eliot, he’s interested in the international struggle of the worker and the oppressed races. This is Hughes writing about a journey to Cuba that he made. He traveled, particularly in the thirties, frequently as a kind of representative of black Americans sponsored by left groups and traveled to, well, Soviet Russia, among other places. If Hughes’s style is stripped down and naked, it is used to describe a people who have been stripped of dignity and identity. If he’s a city poet, he’s not a poet of the village or of London, but rather of Harlem. And if God has withdrawn from the world of Hughes’s poems, God has left people not to Eliotic despair and epistemological anxiety, but rather to rape and murder.

You might remember the last presidential election. Do you remember that? John Kerry, always in search of a theme, which he never quite found, seized for a little while on the phrase, “Let America be America again.” Sounds good. It’s the title of a poem by Langston Hughes which Kerry also made note of when he referred to that, when he quoted Hughes, which was resonant, which sounded good in all sorts of ways, and which had the added advantage of letting Kerry quote a black writer. But then, if you remember this, you will also remember that pundits quickly pointed out that this was not a poem nostalgic for a golden era of democracy but rather a protest poem about the inequities of American history, and it was written by a leftist who had ties to the Communist Party. Whoops.

This is Langston Hughes, and it’s a Russian script on the left, and there’s Hughes in the middle, surrounded by a variety of comrades in Russia in the ’30s. And alas, this is not what John Kerry wanted to project. Or here is Hughes with two Soviet soldiers, also from the ’30s. Hughes is much photographed in many different roles and public scenes, and there’s a vast archive of those papers at the Beinecke, from which these images come. Although Hughes’s reputation is a little bit like Frost’s in having this general readership – he’s poet you probably read even in elementary school – he poses all sorts of political problems that Frost does not.

Well, here is Hughes with somebody else, someone more acceptable to be photographed with: W.C. Handy, in some ways the father of the blues, as he’s called, and a close friend of Hughes’s. Let me talk about Hughes and the blues. Here’s an image, an illustration of Hughes’s poem “Too Blue” by the African-American artist Jacob Lawrence. Hughes, from The Weary Blues forward, frequently presents his poems as forms of music as allied to, as identified with, as perhaps metaphorical versions of African-American forms, particularly, but not only, the blues. Later in his career, his readings would sometimes be accompanied by music. In his best blues poems, Hughes is not trying to write words for music, I don’t think, but rather is trying to write poems that allude to and let us hear in metaphorical ways the musical traditions which they are drawn on, and the culture and experience from which they come. Hughes at his most powerful uses musical forms, popular musical forms, for effects of compression and to develop really complex ironies, often through repetition, usually built out of the three-part structures of the blues.

Chapter 4. Langston Hughes Poem: “Song for a Dark Girl” [00:32:00]

Let’s look at the poem “Song for a Dark Girl” on page 691. Like many of Hughes’s poems, it’s a simple poem in its structure, and yet that simplicity conveys real verbal complexity. And the poem in its popular mode nevertheless invites a kind of close reading that’s demanded by modernist poetry, which presents itself as compressed, imagistic, difficult, and so on. Let’s look at it.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
They hung my black young lover
To a cross roads tree. Way Down South in Dixie
(Bruised body high in air)
I asked the white Lord Jesus
What was the use of prayer. Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
Love is a naked shadow
On a gnarled and naked tree.

This is a song for a dark girl, suggesting at once words for her to sing – a dramatic monologue – and also “for” in the sense of a kind of homage or tribute to her. She is “dark.” As in other Hughes poems, the word here seems to mean “black,” also “darkened”: abused, grieving, shadowed. It’s all held there in that simple word. “Way Down South in Dixie” is a line from the minstrel refrain. It’s borrowed here and adapted. “Dixie” is a kind of shorthand name for a system and history of oppression in this poem, and the very jauntiness and pride of a colloquial name like Dixie is played off of, here, the melancholy and grief of the context.

That phrase “way down,” that seems innocuous too, but isn’t it resonant as it is repeated and as we feel our way into the poem? It’s formulaic, but it suggests that we’re going, that this poem happens, somewhere deep and dark; somewhere away, down; somewhere in the heart, in the heart of this system of oppression; but also, as it will turn out, in “the heart of me,” as the poem develops it. Here, the mere phrase, “Way Down South in Dixie” and the mention of that name, calling up the tune, summons a kind of a history of oppression that would occlude the kind of story that Hughes wants to bring forward and tell here. The minstrel phrase is taken up by here a speaker who suffers, who is oppressed by this system of oppression, and she uses it to make her own music.

As in other Hughes poems, repetition – the use of the refrain – makes everything that happens seem inevitable. It evokes here repeated actions, a kind of history of repeated acts. In general, in the case of refrains, they function in a variety of ways. A refrain that comes last in a verse unit would seem to convey the idea that, well, somehow things always end this way. Here, what we have is an instance of what we would call anaphora; that is, a refrain used to initiate a unit of verse. And the refrain is the first line of these stanzas, and it seems to suggest that this kind of story always begins the same way, “Way Down in Dixie.” This is the way into everything that’s experienced through the poem, everything that’s said.

The parenthesis that comes then, repeated in the second line of each of these stanzas, functions in an interesting way. It suggests, I think, that what is being said in them is a kind of aside or some kind of interior reflection or soliloquy, perhaps a voice that must be kept inside. Does that first phrase, “Break the heart of me,” refer to the girl, to her lynched lover, or to the poet, reflecting on both? Probably the answer is all three, held together in a system of identification. That phrase, “the heart of me,” is resonant. It is what holds these three together, a kind of shared heart. It refers to the “heart,” meaning emotion, feeling, probably pride. But the phrase also suggests simply the center: the heart of me, myself, my identity.

“They,” “They hung my black young lover / to a cross roads tree”; “they” is superbly vague, impersonal, plural, formulaic, dehumanized; evoking a mob, a generalized body. Then there’s that phrase, “a cross roads tree.” There are a lot of suggestions in it. First of all, it evokes the tree of the cross, Christ’s cross. Then the cross is also a figure for, I think, the intersection of white and black, as it is in the little poem called “Cross,” on the page before; you could consult that. And then, the crossroads is one of the central recurrent scenes of the blues. It’s where Robert Johnson, the bluesman, was said to have made his pact with the devil. It is the place where choices are made, where crisis occurs in a wandering and displaced life.

That second verse, “Way Down South in Dixie / bruised body high in air / I asked the white Lord Jesus / what was the use of prayer”; now the parenthesis holds in it a kind of brutal image, something horrifying that must be set off slightly. The body is bruised, it shows the marks of beating, of suffering, in advance of murder. It’s lifted high in air, not in honor or tribute. Rather, to be lifted in this way is to lose all agency, to be made lifeless; all of this presented as a kind of syntactic fragment in the poem, not yet integrated into the poem, so to speak, or it may not yet be integrated into consciousness. The final verse – we’ll go back to it and interpret that image. Here Jesus is white: in a sense a pure, untouched, redeemed; but also because he is, it seems, a representative of white culture, a kind of mediator the girl would seek to address. The girl doesn’t pray to him but rather asks a question, a question about the use of prayer, and Jesus notably doesn’t answer. In addition to repetition, song-form poems like this are made out of omission and jumps from one stanza to another, from one line to another. And one thing omitted here is any sense of Jesus’ reply.

Or perhaps the answer comes in the form of that final verse, which repeats the first lines of the poem – this is the truth that it arises from and returns to – and it gives us a memorable image. The lover has become depersonalized and abstract, merely a shadow. He has now, though, with his abstraction become love itself: the girl’s love, perhaps Christ’s love. And “Love is a naked shadow / on a gnarled and naked tree.” Here the repetition of “naked” is suggestive. It evokes the man’s nakedness, his helplessness and exposure. There’s also a sense of revelation, of coming to the naked truth. And this is something very different from the nakedness that Yeats boasts of in his poems.

Chapter 5. Langston Hughes Poem: “Life Is Fine” [00:43:25]

The blues is also about laughter, and it is laughter that, I guess, I would like to end with while we have a few moments left, laughter that comes out of the endurance of hardship and suffering. This is a young Hughes laughing and here’s a later one. And why don’t we end with a later poem, and that’s called “Life is Fine,” on page 699, twenty years after the poems I’ve been discussing. It, too, has a song form and a blues singer speaking to us:

I went down to the river [and think of how many rivers appear in these
I set down on the bank.
I tried to think but couldn’t,
So I jumped in and sank. I came up once and hollered!
I came up twice and cried!
If that water hadn’t a-been so cold
I might’ve sunk and died. But it was
Cold in that water!
It was cold!

Suicide is contemplated and tried, not quite, because when the singer gets on top of the building he decides, “But it was / high up there! / It was high!” and he’s not about to jump.

Since I’m still here living,
I guess I will live on.
I could’ve died for love –
But for livin’ I was born. [Not for love, because that would mean dying.] You may hear me holler,
You may see me cry –
But I’ll be dogged, sweet baby, If you gonna see me die.
Life is fine!
Fine as wine! Life is fine!

Well, I think rather than say anything else, I’ll stop right on time and promise to return on Wednesday. We’ll talk about William Carlos Williams.

[end of transcript]


Langston Hughes, “Song for a Dark Girl,” 1927 and “Life is Fine,” 1949. Used by permission of Harold Ober Associates.

This material is not licensed under a Creative Commons license. Users must seek permission to use such third-party materials directly from the publisher or estate, as appropriate.

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