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The forms used in the poetry of Langston Hughes are unusually diverse. Indeed, it is partly the breadth of Hughes’s formal experiments that make his poetry so rewarding. One can never quite predict what rhyme schemes, meters, or line lengths Hughes will employ in any given poem. He tried to makes his forms appropriate to his topics. Rather than routinely and relentlessly employing tried-and-true conventional formal patterns, such as the sonnet or the five-foot iambic line, Hughes showed a ready openness to many different kinds of forms. Thus, in his famous poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the first line is strikingly short, consisting of just four syllables. Meanwhile, the next line is unusually long, consisting of sixteen syllables. This very long line, moreover, follows no rigid metrical pattern. A different kind of poet might at least have used a regular iambic beat, but Hughes instead writes a line that reads as freely as if it were written in prose. Line 3, on the other hand, is not only much shorter (consisting of eight syllables) but also has an immediately apparent rhythm: “human blood in human veins.” In just the first three lines of the poem, therefore, Hughes experiments variously, and yet all three lines have in common the fact that they contain numbers of syllables relevant to the number 4: 4, 16, and 8. In other words, beneath the apparent diversity of these lines, some formal pattern may also exist.
Another famous poem by Hughes – “Drum” – looks immediately unusual on the page. Most of its lines are quite short, and indeed the final two consist of single syllables each. Clearly Hughes wanted to mimic in his poem the brief beats of a drum. Particularly interesting in this work is the way the number of syllables dwindles at the very end, so that the poem concludes with syllables (and words) that sound like single drum beats: “Come! / Come!” (17-18). The following list indicates the number of syllables Hughes uses in the individual lines of the poem: 3/5/5/5/5/5/6/6/5/5/4/5/4/4/3/2/1/1. This pattern may at first seem no pattern at all, but if one looks closely one notices that the first six lines contain five lines consisting of five syllables each. These are then followed by two lines contain six syllables each, which are followed in turn by two lines containing five syllables each. Then the poem places a line with five syllables between two lines with four syllables. Finally, the poem seems to count down toward a conclusion, like the final moments before a rocket launch: 4, 3, 2, 1 – and then another 1 for good measure. Whether Hughes deliberately designed the poem to have this kind of pattern is a question that almost doesn’t matter. The important point is that the pattern exists. This poem therefore provides one example among many that could be given of Hughes’s inventiveness in the use of poetic forms.
One can see, simply from leafing through an anthology of Hughes’s poems, that the forms of few of his best works repeat themselves. It is as if Hughes tried to find the “right” form for each individual poem he wrote.
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