Thursday, February 23, 2012

Black History Month - The Poetry of Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes was born in 1902.  His extensive body of poetry includes poems about black American life (including poetry about jazz and Harlem) and also about common human experiences.  He admired greatly the poetry of Walt Whitman, and was also influenced by Carl Sandburg.  Although his poetry has been criticized for being the equivalent of folk-art and for being too simplistic, I find much in his writing that resonates with me.  He wrote mainly for an audience of African-Americans, and wanted his poetry to be accessible to them in both style and subject matter.  Taking a cue from Carl Sandburg's Jazz Fantasies, Hughes included jazz influences and African rhythms in his verse.  Some have also criticized Hughes for his radical political poetry. However, writers often are a reflection of the times they live in, and the fact that some of Hughes' poems have Marxist and socialist thought in them is descriptive of the era as much as the man.  He also wrote religious poems, and poetry that described the human condition during the Depression. Langston Hughes died in 1967.  His poetry is definitely worth reading, and he should be included in any study of American literature.  I am including two of his poems here:  the first is a poem with historical references (in honor of Black History Month), and the second is simply a poem that I like.  As Black History Month draws to a close, take a moment to celebrate the creative legacy left to us by artists such as Langston Hughes.

(poems reprinted from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, 1994, Vintage Classics).

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.

The Dream Keeper
Bring me all of your dreams,
You dreamers,
Bring me all of your 
Heart melodies
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers
Of the world.

Do you have a favorite Langston Hughes poem?  What do you think of the ones I included here?

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