Langston Hughes

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Edward E. Waldron

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 poetic style, the blues' form is directly related to its content. Although what a particular blues is about may vary from blues to blues, the basic content of the blues usually has to do with some form of disappointment, most commonly in love, but also in other areas of life—or maybe in just plain living…. [Yet the blues also contain] an essence that is found in almost every facet of Black American expression: the duality of laughing and crying at the same time or, as Hughes says it, "laughing to keep from crying." Laughing at trouble is a concept we may all try to adopt at one time or another, but Black American writers have wrought this fine ability into a grand motif that...

(The entire section is 4,600 words.)