In his blues poetry Langston Hughes captures the mood, the feel, and the spirit of the blues; his poems have the rhythm and the impact of the musical form they incorporate. Indeed, the blues poems of Langston Hughes are blues as well as poetry….
[The] blues reflects the trials and tribulations of the Negro in America on a secular level, much as the spirituals do on the religious level. Both expressions are, certainly, necessary releases. In one of his "Blues for Men" poems in Shakespeare in Harlem …, Hughes dramatizes the necessity for this release…. [In "In a Troubled Key"] we see the blues maker turning his despair into song instead of into murder, and, one has the feeling that the mood of the blues is often one step away from death—either murder or suicide—and that the presence of the blues form makes it possible for the anguished one to direct his sorrow inward into song and find happiness in the release. (p. 140)
The blues … is an integral part of Black American culture. It is fitting that one of America's greatest poets chose this form to express himself in so many poems.
While Langston Hughes certainly did not limit himself to any one form or subject, his concern with the common man—the source of the blues—makes his use of the blues form especially "right." There seems to be a real marriage of artist and creation in the blues that this man composed. That Hughes was interested, vitally interested, in the plight of the common man is evident in his other works as well. His choice of Jesse B. Semple as his spokesman from Harlem clearly reflects Hughes's love of the common folk. (p. 141)
So, the man and the form are right for each other. The blues offered to Hughes a format in which to express his interest in the common folks and their problems, and the poet brought to the form a sensitive ability to create within its limits…. [The] simplistic, direct nature of the blues form [gives strength and effectiveness to the blues poetry of Langston Hughes]. And, while the blues poet cannot twist and turn the lyrics to fit a mood and tempo as a blues singer can, if he is good—and Hughes is—he can overcome this handicap by his artistic ability as a poet.
The blues, as any art form, has definite patterns which are adhered to in its composition. In another introductory "Note on Blues," [in Fine Clothes to the Jew] …, Hughes gives us the most common pattern:
The Blues, unlike the Spirituals, have a strict poetic pattern: one long line repeated and a third line to rhyme with the first two. Sometimes the second line in repetition is slightly changed and sometimes, but very seldom, it is omitted.
In order to maintain a closer semblance to poetic form, Hughes breaks the first two lines into two lines each and also divides the final line, creating a six-line stanza. (pp. 141-42)
[In some poems] the repeated first line has dropped a word, and the repeated second line has changed by dropping one word and adding others in its place. This changing of lines helps keep the flow of the poem going, without ruining the effectiveness of the repetition.
Another fairly common form of the blues stanza, and one which Hughes uses now and then, is a simple four-line stanza in a rhyme scheme of a-b-c-b. "Reasons Why" from The Dream Keeper is in this form…. (p. 142)
As with any...
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Jesse B. Semple is certainly no romantic hero, protest victim or militant leader, no charismatic character for the young to emulate…. Simple reached a wide, appreciative black audience because he appeared in newspapers readily available to black readers, and he reached white readers when Hughes began to publish the tales in book form. What is Simple's appeal? My contention is that the popularity of the tales is based on the narrative technique of the artist; that is, on the artistic devices used by Langston Hughes, a writer who not only knew his medium, but also knew the people whom he addressed through that medium: 1) the sure fire appeal of the skit technique, 2) an apparent artlessness and simplicity in the development of theme and character, 3) reader identification, and 4) the intermittent sound of the blues in prose.
The skit technique, adapted to the demands of the newspaper column, is a natural form for the tales. The oral tradition of the Afro-American was carried on in the vaudeville and burlesque routines which were so popular in the twenties and thirties. Those routines had elements that we also see in the Simple stories: two stand-up comics playing against and to each other, fast paced dialogue and a quick exit. Each of the tales is self-contained and is almost entirely in dialogue; each gives Simple a chance to make some comment, flavored with his unique malapropisms, about the world of Harlem or the world in general. Hughes's persona, Boyd, is the straight man, the foil to Simple's wit, and his educated language is juxtaposed to Simple's Black English, rich in the folk idioms of Harlem. (pp. 68-9)
[Seeming] artlessness in the verbal and situational irony abundant in the tales is also reflected in the development of theme and character. This is belied, however, by the artful way we learn of Simple and of the characters who touch his life…. [In] almost every case, the...
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In a difficult or disorganized structure, illustrating fused time, The Big Sea interweaves the themes of paradox and eternality.
The Big Sea preserves a history of events less well than a history of persons…. Often giving historical fact, [Hughes] has his own loose and confusing way of presentation…. Actually the history of the work stretches from Hughes's birth in 1902 to the death of A'Lelia Walker in 1931 and the Scottsboro case of the same year….
Just as it reminds one of literary history, The Big Sea reminds one of the Western Movement, which characterized America in the 1800s and which ended in the 1890s. (p. 39)
His movement to Lincoln, Illinois, in 1916 is an example of the great migration of that decade, when Blacks pulled up roots in the South and journeyed north in hope of better jobs and better pay. His family becomes a symbol of all the restless and wandering Blacks then….
This work, moreover, preserves not only the social realities of its time, but the contemporary literature…. Viewing literary figures through The Big Sea allows the reader to experience time multi-dimensionally, to see the new poetry movement of 1912 through the eyes of Hughes the narrator, who becomes twenty-one in 1923….
One reads The Big Sea less for its recording of the discriminations against Blacks after World War I than for its recording of Blacks' accomplishments during the Harlem Renaissance….
In The Big Sea one finds preserved the paradox of both white and...
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Hughes's Ask Your Mama conforms in many respects to [a certain] concept of jazz poetry. Throughout the twelve sections of the volume there are elaborate notes calling for the reciprocal interplay of music and poetry. The dominant theme that in "the Quarter of the Negroes" life is full of waiting and hesitating is stressed musically by "The Hesitation Blues," an old blues number used as a recurring leitmotif throughout Ask Your Mama. Moreover, the ringing indictments of social and moral injustice customarily found in the usual jazz poem are in full evidence in the volume. These are delivered with that peculiar Hughesian blend of anger, irony, and humor. (pp. 110-11)
[In] "the Quarter of the Negroes"—itself a phrase full of anger and irony—tribal togetherness has been replaced by a pervasive hatred of oppressive institutions, mandates, and regulations. This hatred has become the only "umbilical cord" tying one black person to another, but it provides no tribal shelter for the unwed mother, the unwanted child, the unemployed father, or for any of those who "just wait" in the "shadow of the welfare."
In other respects, Ask Your Mama is not a typical jazz poem. Certain passages are obscure and recondite and hence lack the direct clarity of statement usually found in the jazz poem. (p. 111)
Hughes also complicates his communication problem in Ask Your Mama by making excessive use of thematic discontinuity, a rhetorical ploy adapted from the bebop musical style and used with some effectiveness in blending a musical mode with a poetic style in Montage in 1951. But in the 1961 volume the message is frequently marred and coherence lost when there are sudden shifts of meaning and thematic breaks that snap the thread of meaning in a given passage and splinter off into elusive tangents of poetical comment which confuse rather than clarify. (p. 112)
[One] example of this kind of thematic discontinuity occurs at the beginning of the poem when the poet communicates how dismal and isolated and fragile is "the Quarter of the Negroes," whatever the country or climate…. Here life is flat and filled with the gray monotony that afflicts the poor. Yet there is a glittering exception to this state of affairs, and that is found in the life-style of Leontyne:
Yet Leontyne's unpacking
In the Quarter of the Negroes
Where the doorknob lets in lieder
More than German ever bore,
Her yesterday past grandpa
Not of her own doing—
In a pot of collard greens
Is gently stewing.
The reference in these lines is to the ironic juxtaposition of two cultures in the life-style of opera star Leontyne Price….
Having made this interesting observation about the clash of cultures in the lives of international stars like Leontyne Price, Hughes quickly shifts to what one critic calls his most crippling poetic mannerism—a listing of names of those well-to-do, successful blacks who are brought into view when an African diplomat is sent to visit the Quarter by the State Department. Then there follow five lines describing some problems blacks encounter when they move from one Quarter to another—from Harlem to Long Island. This is followed by a rather elusive and puzzling passage about Ralph Ellison and some other black notables setting sail for Ghana and Guinea, Africa's two newly independent nations. (p. 113)
Admittedly, if the intention of Hughes were to offer only a collage of his flitting impressions of life in the "Quarter of the Negroes" with no conclusive comment or coherent summarization, then skipping rapidly from one theme to another is as poetically fitting as the ingenious musical soloist who weaves an arabesque of sound around a single musical idea. As Jean Wagner points out in his discussion of...
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