Langston Hughes: A Poet Supreme
Black poetry is poetry that (1) is grounded in the black experience; (2) utilizes black music as a structural or emulative model; and (3) consciously transforms the prevailing standards of poetry through and inconoclastic and innovative use of language.
No poet better carries the mantle of model and innovator the Langston Hughes, the prolific Duke Ellington of black poetry. Hughes’s output alone is staggering. During his lifetime, he published over eight hundred poems. Moreover, he single-handedly defined blues poetry and is arguably the first major jazz poet. Early in his career he realized the importance of reading his poetry to receptive audiences. When Alain Locke arranged a poetry reading by Hughes before the Playwriter’s Circle in 1972 in Washington, a blues pianist accompanied him, bringing Hughes the artist and blues music one step closer together, even though Hughes felt that the piano player was ‘too polished.’ He suggested to his Knopf editor that they ought to get ‘a regular Lenox Avenue blues boy’ to accompany him at his reading in New York. In the fifties Hughes was a major voice in the movement of recording with jazz accompaniment.
Although I have neither the space, inclination, or ability to give a close textual reading of Hughes’s poetry and although a large body of critical work already exists, I would like to focus on one piece by Hughes to evidence my case for his stature. That piece is the multipart, book-lenght poem Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951).
In Montage, which Hughes described in a letter to Arna Bontemps as what you might call a precedent shattering opus-also could be known as a tour de force, Hughes addresses a number of critical problems facing black poetry: (1) how to affect a modern sensibility and at the same time maintain a grounding in the folk culture; (2) how to achieve the textual representation of the music, especially in terms of improvisation and variation of tone and timbre; and (3) how to use the vernacle without resorting to dialect.
Hughes realized that is was impossible to do what he wanted to do in one piece, so he composed a series of short poems that play effect off eachother. Western literacy thought values the long form, the novel in particular, as a statement of intellectual acheivement and implicity devalues short forms. For this reason a collection of short stories rarely recieves equal critical attention as does a novel by the same author. In order to make the long form stand out, the author is expected to demonstrate complexity of plot and character developement. But these and related concerns are simply a culturally biased valuation of a specific set of literacy devices, often at the expense of other devices (many of which center on the sounding of poetry on the page). In a very important sence, modern American poetry was moving toward painting, that is, a composition of words placed on a page, and away from music, that is, an articulation of words that have been both sense (meaning) and sound (emotion). Hughes clearly close to emphasize black music, which increasingly meant dealing with improvisation.
The improvisation is implied in that certain themes, rhymes and rhythmic patterns, and recurring images ebb and flow throughout Montage- here spelled out in detail, there hinted at, and in another instance turned on their head. The above-quoated letter indicated that Hughes was conscious of what he was doing, and it is this self-consciousness that marks this as a modern poem. Indeed, Montage is almost postmodern in its mosaic of voices and attitude contained in one piece.
Just as jazz simultaneously stresses the collective and the individual, Hughes component poems are each individual statements, but they are also part of a larger unit(y). Significantly, Hughes as an individual is de-emphasized in the work, even as various individual members of the community speak and are spoken about. In other words, Hughes becomes a medium, a sensitive and subtle medium, but a medium nonetheless. In a seemingly simple form, Hughes serves as a sounding board for the articulation of people who are usually voiceless.
The work’s modernity is the self-reflective nature of all the voiced speaking, and in speaking, coming to consciouness of themselves and their environment. Time and time again we hear voices self-consciously grappling with their Harlem realities, which include an international awareness of African American, West Indian, and African bonding. In the African American context modernity specifically refers to the post-Reconstruction, nothern-oriented urbanization of African American life. No presixties black poet was more complete in expressing the black urban viewpoint than Hughes.
The ease with which Hughes voices the various personalities and points of view belies both complexity and progressiveness of his achievement. Because of the brevity of the poems, Hughes’s points are often made in passing and require reflection in order to appreciate just how many short poems that make up the Montage series. This poem perfectly illustrates Hughes’s musical use of bebop rythms and phrasing mated to subtle social commentary.
Most critics consider Hughes reticent on the subject of homosexuality, yet Montage includes this double critique-one of homophobia and heterosexism and one of the criminalization of sexual activities.
Cafe: 3 a.m.
Detective from the vice squad
with weary sadistic eyes
some folks say.
But God, Nature,
made them that way.
Police lady or Lesbian
Compare this to the work of any other poet publishing with a major house in the early 1950’s.
In the headnote to Montage, Hughes declares, In the terms of current Afro-American popular music and sources from which it has progressed–jazz, ragtime, swing, blues, boogie-woogie, and be-bop–this poem on contemporary Harlem, like
be-bop, is marked by conflicting changes sudden naunces, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rythems, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes like the popular song, puncuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and distortions of the music of a community in transition.
Langston Hughes, a poet who had cut his teeth and made his mark as a blues` poet, took up the challenge of writing book-length bebop jazz peom! Although, just like the music, there is a bedrock of blues undergirding the jazz structure, Hughes objective and success was in creating a modern jazz structure that allowed for a broader range of themes, voices, and even styles. Some of the poems are epigrams, some are written as actual letters, some are conversations, and others are monologs; more than once we have poems that amount to sayings, folk definitions, and observations. Indeed, Montage is aptly named. In the whole history of American literature, no one has written a comparable poem that bases itself on a music form, and certainly no one has ever come close in the context of jazz. All other efforts at jazz poetry pale in comparison.
Consider that Hughes does not take the easy way out. He chose not to emphasize the names of musicians or the names of musical compostions. There is no attempt to imitate the sound of the horns (as was common in much of the Black Arts music-based poetry). The mosaic quality of the music, the intensity of expression, the fluid, quicksilver rhythms, and the complex melodic counterpoint and harmonic daring of bebop are all achieved by a deft use of simple words, precise punctuation, and italics. The complexity of the overall composition notwithstanding, the individual parts seem too simple to be true, but Montage works so sublimely because Hughes figured out precisely how to get to the heart of the expression without bothering with or getting caught up in external floridness.
The third major achievement of this poem is Hughes’s mastery of nuance and control of language. He suggest the dialect without resorting to the contractions and so-called broken English that mar(k)s most dialects poetry and some modern poetry by blacks. Langston Hughes and the Blues, Steven Tracy’s detailed reading and explication of Hughes’s blues poetry, more than adequately defines Hughes’s consummate poetic artistry. Tracy pays particular attention to Hughes’s subltle use of puncuation, a subtlety that completey escapes most critics of Hughes’s work. Although Tracy does not focus on the bebop aspects of Montage and does not address Ask Your Mama, this is nevertheless the best starting point for a literary appreciation of Hughes’s use of music in his poetry. Introducing an analysis of the textual revisions that Hughes made as he combined the techniques of the blues artist, the blues composer, and the poet, Tracy writes: The pervasive influence of the oral tradition in Hughes’s poetry might make an examination of Hughes’s revisions of his blues peoms seem like a futile, pedantic exercise, particularly given the variable nature of an individual blues lyric as the singer performs it. However, because Hughes was a literary artist, because he was tied to the written as well as the oral tradition, and because he made sometimes drastic revisions of his blues poems, such an examination helps to reaveal his attitudes toward his material as they modulate over the years and to illuminate the nature of his use of the oral blues tradition in his written work.
There is an African proverb used to express futility: like singing to a white man. If one is unfamiliar with blues culture, how can one hope to appreciate fully or expertly critique Langston Hughes? The establishment’s critical diminishing and dismissing of Hughes is based, to an astoundingly large degree, on the cultural illiteracy and unresponsiveness of establishment critics to the blues. In their ignorance they denigrated what they were both intellectually and emotionally unequipped to understand.
Montage gave us defining metaphors of the black experience–the dream deferred and raisins in the sun. Only Dunbar’s caged bird mataphor comes close, in terms of popular acceptance, as a cultural image of African American life. As important and innovative as Montage is, most of us are not fully aware of this book-length accomplishment because we have bought into the establishment assessment that Hughes had a limited poetic technique. In a similar way, the establishment assessment assessed Thelonious Monk as having a limited piano techinique. But just as few pianists are able to play like Monk and no musicians have to able to match his compositional authority; similarity, emphasis on Eurocentric poetic devices notwithstanding few poets have been able to write from inside the black experience like Hughes, and no one has achieved as impressive a body of compositions, that is textual peoms.
Lanston Hughes was absolutely clear about the focus of his work and the danger inherent in articulating the history and vision, the realities and aspirations, of the sufferers.
An emphasis on dual responsibilites, social literacy, is in itself a particular feature of a black aesthetic. This is not new, or novel, but it does continue to be controversial precisely because it contextualizes art within the world as the world actually is , beset by dominant and dominating forces who enforce (sometimes under the rubric of free enterprise) all manners of economic exploitation.
There is necessarily an opposition to commercialism inherent in the black aesthetic precisely because, from an African American perspective, the birth of the black experience, as archetypically illustrated by the Congo Suare experience, was simultaneously the site of both black art as ritual and black art as entertainment, with the entertainment undermining the rutual. Moreover, the birth of the African American was as a chattel slave, as a commercial product. If anyone is by birthright opposed to commericalism, it is certainly the African American.
The advocacy of freedom and fighting against oppression and exploitation is not simply a question of content but also a question of the use of art. Langston Hughes was keenly aware of the dichotomy of content and aestetic and also of moral disaster of ignoring the reality and repercussions of such a dichotomy. Too many people in their literary criticism completely overlook social context and hence overlook as well the fact that the social thrust of peotry is intergral to its aestetics.
Langston Hughes, as subtle as he was, and as innocuous as he may seem by today’s standards, is exemplary of a poet grounded in the culture, consistent in his use of music as both inspiration and model, and innovative and iconoclastic in his use of English. Yes, it was and continues to be revolutionary to insist on transforming English into a tool of ritual within the black community and not just a lingua franca of commerce or individual self-expression.
Finally, another aspect of Hughes’s abilites that is also overlooked or ignored is that he was multilingual and masterfully translated poetry, including seminal work of Nicholas Gullien and Federico Garcia Lorca. The importance of this observation is that this is another piece of irrefutable evidence that Hughes’s writing style was not reflective of the limitations of an undisciplined, unsophisticated, and provincial poet.
Much of the criticism of Hughes’s poetry by textually influenced academicians would lead the reader to believe that Hughes was simply a hack writer who had some facility with musical imagery and styles. Such views who comfortably spoke three languages, translated literature from Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, and elsewhere, and traveled incessantly, could be thought of as a relitively unsophisticated, even simple poet.
In much the same way the Pulitzer judges refused to award their prize to Duke Ellington in 1965 because they did not think his work was serious enough, Hughes has been denied both the appropriate formal awards and informal kudos, as well as significant posthumous awards from the American literacy establishment. Perhaps there is no suprise here because the elevation of self-determined blackness, especially outside of sports and entertainment, is usually greeted by deafening silence from both critical as well as the popular authorities of the status quo. How else could it be? To achieve blackness is inherently a liberating act, and liberation is neccessarily disruptive of the status quo.
From my personal perspective, I feel that not just African American poetry, but poetry in itself has deep internal impacts on people in general. Self expression, life experiences, and point-of-views are all expressed in Poetry. As a poet, I hope to make my mark and contribution to African Americans as Langston Hughes has done for me.