Harlem Questions and Answers
by Langston Hughes

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Review the structure of the poem, "Harlem," by Langston Hughes.

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While Langston Hughes's "Harlem" does not have a specific meter or rhyme pattern, it does create a pattern, via the use of similes, to speculate on the opening line "What happens to a dream deferred?" However, once the pattern is established, Hughes employs metaphor to create a final, lasting impression on the reader.

The majority of the poem is set up to ponder the initial question via the similes that follow it. Over the course of lines 2-10, Hughes introduces similes that ask if a dream deferred dries up "like a raisin in the sun," festers "like a sore / and then run[s]," "stink[s] like rotten meat? / Or crust[s] and sugar[s] over- / like a syrupy sweet[.]" Through those four similes, he presents the possibility that a dream will simply shrivel, dispel, smell, or otherwise not come to any significant fruition. It is as if the dream may become nothing more than it is, eventually resolving itself into something fairly harmless (rotten meat) or even a minor pleasantry (a syrupy sweet). His final simile, which suggests that perhaps a dream deferred "sags / like a heavy load" coaxes the reader to think that the dream almost becomes a burden on the dreamer and itself, thus never really affecting any other aspect of the world. However, in the final line, Hughes brilliantly shifts from simile to metaphor to ask, "Or does it explode?" This final movement snaps the reader to attention by conjuring the idea of a bomb. In doing so, it resonates far beyond the final line, leaving a lasting impression on the reader, who is forced to ponder the fallout alone.

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Langston Hughes' poem entitled, "Harlem," uses a couple of literary devices—including imagery often in the form of similes. However, "Harlem" does not have a set meter or rhyme scheme.

Meter is the beat or rhythm of in a poem. Meter is defined as:

...a rhythm of accented and unaccented syllables which are organized into patterns, called feet.

"Harlem" does not have a set rhythm because it includes several lines of varying lengths.

Hughes' poem "Harlem" is written in free verse, which does not have a recognizable pattern. The poem is "free" of rules for rhyming or rhythmic patterns. Free verse is poetry that…

...refrains from consistent meter patterns, rhyme, or any other musical pattern...

Langston Hughes does use rhyme in "Harlem," but it does not follow a set configuration. Charting the rhyme (by using the last word of each line) shows no discernible pattern. The pattern of the poem's single "section" is abcbded. The last two lines rhyme, but they are not presented as a rhyming couplet. A rhyming couplet is generally made up of two related lines of text—that rhyme.

Good rhyming couplets tend to "snap" as both the rhyme and the idea come to a quick close.


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