Langston Hughes

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Langston Hughes Poetry: American Poets Analysis

(Poets and Poetry in America)

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

(The entire section is 1,696 words.)