Langston Hughes often referred to three poets as his major influences: Paul Laurence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman. If one were to assay what qualities of Hughes’s poetry show the influence of which poet, one might say that Hughes got his love of the folk and his lyric simplicity from Dunbar, his attraction to the power of the people—especially urban dwellers— and his straightforward descriptive power from Sandburg, and his fascination with sensual people—people of the body rather than the mind—and his clear sense of rhythm from Whitman. No one would draw such a clear delineation, but the elements described are essential elements of Hughes’s poetry. His work explores the humor and the pathos, the exhilaration and the despair, of black American life in ways that are sometimes conventional and sometimes unique. He explored the blues as a poetic form, and he peopled his poems with Harlem dancers, as well as with a black mother trying to explain her life to her son. He worked with images of dreams and of “dreams deferred”; he looked at life in the middle of America’s busiest black city and at the life of the sea and of exploration and discovery. Always, too, Hughes examined the paradox of being black in mostly white America, of being not quite free in the land of freedom.
The poetry of Hughes is charged with life and love, even when it cries out against the injustice of the world. He was a poet who loved life and loved his heritage. More than any other black American writer, he captured the essence of the complexity of a life that mixes laughter and tears, joy and frustration, and still manages to sing and dance with the spirit of humanity.
The Weary Blues
Hughes’s first collection of poetry, The Weary Blues, contains samples of many of the poetic styles and themes of his poetry in general. The collection begins with a celebration of blackness (“Proem”) and ends with an affirmation of the black American’s growing sense of purpose and equality “Epilogue” (“I, Too, Sing America”). In between, there are poems that sing of Harlem cabaret life and poems that sing the blues. Some of the nonblues poems also sing of a troubled life, as well as an occasional burst of joy. Here, too, are the sea poems drawn from Hughes’s traveling experiences. All in all, the sparkle of a love of life in these poems was that which caught the attention of many early reviewers.
The titles of some of the poems about cabaret life suggest their subject: “Jazzonia,” “Negro Dancers,” “The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.),” and “Harlem Night Club.” “The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)” is especially intriguing because it intersperses a conversation between two “jive” lovers with the first chorus of “Everybody Loves My Baby,” producing the effect of a jazz chorus within the song’s rhythmic framework.
Part of the controversy that flared in the black community during the Harlem Renaissance involved whether an artist should present the “low-life” elements or the more conventional middle-class elements in black American life. Hughes definitely leaned toward the former as the richer, more exciting to portray in his poetry. Because the blues tradition is more tied to the common folk than to the middle class, Hughes’s interest in the possibilities of using the blues style in his poetry is not surprising. He took the standard three-line blues stanza and made it a six-line stanza to develop a more familiar poetic form; the repetition common in the first and second lines in the blues becomes a repetition of the first/second and third/fourth lines in Hughes’s poems. As in the traditional blues, Hughes varies the wording in the repeated lines—adding, deleting, or changing words. For example, here is a stanza from “Blues Fantasy”:
My man’s done left me, Chile, he’s gone away. My good man’s left me, Babe, he’s gone away. Now the cryin’ blues Haunts me night and day.
Often exclamation points are added to suggest more nearly the effect of the sung blues.
There are not as many blues poems in this first collection as there are in later ones such as Fine Clothes to the Jew and Shakespeare in Harlem. (The latter contains a marvelous seven-poem effort titled “Seven Moments of Love,” which Hughes subtitled “An Un-Sonnet Sequence in Blues.”) The title poem of his first collection, “The Weary Blues,” is an interesting variation because it has a frame for the blues that sets up the song sung by a blues artist. The poet recalls the performance of a blues singer/pianist “on Lenox Avenue the other night” and describes the man’s playing and singing. Later, the singer goes home to bed, “while the Weary Blues echoed through his head.” Over the years, Hughes wrote a substantial number of blues poems and poems dealing with jazz, reflecting clearly his love for the music that is at the heart of the black American experience.
Some of the poems in The Weary Blues are simple lyrics. They are tinged with sadness (“A Black Pierrot”) and with traditional poetic declarations of the beauty of a loved one (“Ardella”). The sea poems are also, by and large, more traditional than experimental. Again, their titles reflect their subject matter: “Water-Front Streets,” “Port Town,” “Sea Calm,” “Caribbean Sunset,” and “Seascape.”
A few of these early poems reflect the gentle but insistent protest that runs through Hughes’s poems; they question the treatment of black Americans and search for a connection with the motherland, Africa. The last section of the book is titled “Our Land,” and the first poem in the section, “Our Land: Poem for a Decorative Panel,” explores the idea that the black American should live in a land of warmth and joy instead of in a land where “life is cold” and “birds are grey.” Other poems in the section include “Lament for Dark Peoples,”“Disillusion,” and “Danse Africaine.” Perhaps the most poignant poem in the book is also in this last section: “Mother to Son.” The poem is a monologue in dialect in which a mother encourages her son to continue the struggle she has carried on, which she likens to climbing a rough, twisting staircase: “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair./ It’s had tacks in it . . . And places with no carpet on the floor—/ Bare.” The collection’s final poem, “Epilogue” (“I, Too, Sing America”), raises the hope that some day equality will truly be reached in America for the “darker brother” who is forced “to eat in the kitchen/ When company comes.” Taken together, the poems of The Weary Blues make an extraordinary first volume of poetry and reveal the range of Hughes’s style and subject matter.
The next two principal volumes of poetry, Fine Clothes to the Jew and The Dream Keeper, and Other Poems, present more of Hughes’s blues poems (the latter volume is primarily in that genre) and more poems centering on Harlem’s night life. The final two volumes, Ask Your Mama and The Panther and the Lash, continue the experiment of combining musical elements with poetry and offer some of Hughes’s strongest protest poetry.
Ask Your Mama
Ask Your Mama is dedicated to “Louis Armstrong—the greatest horn blower of them all.” In an introductory note, Hughes explains that “the traditional folk melody of the ’Hesitation Blues’ is the leitmotif for this poem.” The collection was designed to be read or sung with jazz accompaniment, “with room for spontaneous jazz improvisation, particularly between verses, when the voice pauses.” Hughes includes suggestions for music to accompany the poetry. Sometimes the instructions are open (“delicate lieder on piano”), and sometimes they are more direct (“suddenly the drums roll like thunder as the music ends sonorously”). There are also suggestions for specific songs to be used, including “Dixie” (“impishly”), “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” As a final aid, Hughes includes at the end of his collection “Liner Notes” for, as he says, “the Poetically Unhep.”
Throughout, the poems in Ask Your Mama run the current of protest against “the shadow” of racism that falls over the lives of Earth’s darker peoples. Shadows frequently occur as images and symbols, suggesting the fear and the sense of vague existence created by living in oppression. “Show Fare, Please” summarizes the essence of the poet’s feeling of being left out because he does not have “show fare,” but it also suggests that “the show” may be all illusion anyway. Not all the poems are so stark; the humor of Hughes’s earlier work is still very much in evidence. In “Is It True,” for example, Hughes notes that “everybody thinks that Negroes have the most fun, but, of course, secretly hopes they do not—although curious to find out if they do.”
The Panther and the Lash
The Panther and the Lash, the final collection of Hughes’s new poetry, published the year he died, also contains some of his most direct protest poetry, although he never gives vent to the anger that permeated the work of his younger contemporaries. The collection is dedicated “To Rosa Parks of Montgomery who started it all . . .” in 1955 by refusing to move to the back of a bus. The panther of the title refers to a “Black Panther” who “in his boldness/ Wears no disguise,/ Motivated by the truest/ Of the oldest/ Lies”; the lash refers to the white backlash of the times (in “The Backlash Blues”).
The book has seven sections, each dealing with a particular part of the subject. “Words on Fire” has poems on the coming of the Third World revolution, while “American Heartbreak” deals with the consequences of “the great mistake/ That Jamestown made/ Long ago”; that is, slavery. The final section, “Daybreak in Alabama,” does, however, offer hope. In spite of past and existing conditions, the poet hopes for a time when he can compose a song about “daybreak in Alabama” that will touch everybody “with kind fingers.”