illustrated portrait of American poet and author Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

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Edward E. Waldron

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1445

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...

(This entire section contains 1445 words.)

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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 consistently runs through their works; and Langston Hughes is certainly qualified as an artist in weaving this quality into his poetry and other works.

As mentioned earlier, the problem of a broken romance—for one reason or another—dominates the thematic scheme of the blues, and Hughes makes use of that theme in several of his blues poems. (pp. 142-43)

An extensive treatment of the man's side of the lost-love blues is found in the "Seven Moments of Love" section of Shakespeare in Harlem, which Hughes subtitled "An Un-Sonnet Sequence in Blues." This is a progressive series of seven poems dealing with a man's state of mind after his woman has left him…. Throughout this series of poems Hughes manages to maintain a sense of identity in the singer of the blues and keeps at work a progression that ties together all seven poems very neatly.

An interesting stanzaic variation occurs in another "Blues for Men" poem from Shakespeare in Harlem, "Only Woman Blues." In this poem the first four lines of each stanza are different; there is not the repetition that is common in the blues stanza. Instead, Hughes uses the same last two lines for each stanza…. In this form Hughes retains the usefulness of the repeated line, but he frees himself in the first four lines and is able to expand the thought of the blues beyond the restrictive pattern normally used. (p. 143)

[In "Early Evening Quarrel," form again reflects content as a man and woman argue.] Leaving the more common blues stanza, Hughes hastens the argument along by switching to an a-b-c-b stanza for Hattie's reply…. By changing to the shorter form in his later stanzas, Hughes is able to keep up the staccato pace of his arguing couple and still make use of a blues format. This is one of the most original uses of the blues form in Hughes's works. (p. 145)

Humor dominates in a few of the blues poems of Langston Hughes. "Crowing-Hen Blues" … is a blues that is also pure folk humor. (p. 147)

In addition to the more common subjects for blues that Hughes makes use of in his poetry, he also uses other, less common, subjects. A natural disaster would most likely find its way into a blues or a folk ballad, and Hughes took a terrible flooding of the Mississippi as the subject for his "Mississippi Levee."…

Finally, the blues themselves serve as the subject for some of the blues written by Langston Hughes, and the best single example of this type of poem is the title poem from The Weary Blues. In this poem, Hughes sets up a "frame" wherein he recalls the performance of a blues singer-pianist "on Lenox Avenue the other night."… (p. 148)

The blues poetry of Langston Hughes, then, has a great deal to offer. Within this limited source of Hughes's creativity alone, we confront many of the themes that he develops more fully in other works. Loneliness, despair, frustration, and a nameless sense of longing are all represented in the blues poetry; and, these themes dominate not only the works of Hughes but also those of most Black American writers.

What direction Hughes's poetry of the blues might have taken thematically were he writing today is hinted at in the one traditional-form blues included in his last collection of verse, The Panther and The Lash …, "The Backlash Blues." Once again Hughes underscores his concern with the social plight of the Black man in America in this poem…. While the blues traditionally have not concerned themselves directly with sociopolitical problems, and while Hughes follows this tradition fairly closely in his blues poetry, one sees in this, his final published blues poem the potential that Hughes might have developed in light of today's Black Power movement. (pp. 148-49)

At any rate the blues poems we do have from this gifted poet illustrate quite well the effectiveness of this great American art form—even though his blues are read and not sung. Indeed, Hughes's sensitive reproduction of the language of the blues, which is the language of the common man/blues maker, and his ability to recreate the rhythmic effect of a sung blues make it difficult not to sing, however softly, the blues of Langston Hughes. (p. 149)

Edward E. Waldron, "The Blues Poetry of Langston Hughes," in Negro American Literature Forum (© Indiana State University 1971), Vol. 5, No. 4, Winter, 1971, pp. 140-49.

Phillis R. Klotman

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 792

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 characters and experiences are filtered through Simple's singular vision. These are tales, after all, not plotted short stories, and there is little description or exposition. We learn of Simple's past and present life from the experiences he shares with us and with Boyd, and of some of the actions as they take place. (p. 70)

Not all of the tales end with the two-line finale, nor are they all of the short-skirt variety; on occasion Simple even waxes eloquent. Nonetheless, the large majority do reflect a deceptive simplicity in theme and character which may in part explain the "seduction" of both black and white readers. (p. 71)

Inherent in Hughes's philosophy, throughout all of his works, is his recognition of, and pride in, the fact that the Afro-American has developed (or perhaps had innately) the ability to endure—to endure not only all of the sorrows to which man is heir, but also all of the racial calumnies devised by white society to defame its black citizens. (p. 72)

If the black reader's identification with Simple's characteristically black experience in America is ultimately successful, how is it possible for the white reader (who may often find himself on the butt end of the joke) to identify positively enough to keep reading? For one thing, the appeal of the "common man" who rises above the exigencies of everyday life is essentially raceless, as are a number of Simple's predicaments with which we identify as though we had been in such situations ourselves. It is our common lot as human beings that we share with Simple. (p. 73)

Hughes also achieves a delicate balance in the satiric view of life reflected in Simple's philosophy. We may hear him rail against such heinous crimes and flagrant injustices as lynchings, segregation, job discrimination and bigotry (of both northern and southern extractions), while at the same time we hear him considering the universal problems of war and peace, death and immortality, love, hate and sympathy…. This is not to assume that Jess B. Semple is anything but a "race man" first; he may ridicule the foibles of black people … but white racism—in all its forms, whether mild or virulent—is the main target for his sharpest criticism. (pp. 73-4)

Simple is in fact one of the Blues People. (p. 74)

There are many kinds of Blues, most of which Hughes fits into categories: family blues, loneliness blues, left-lone-some blues, broke-and-hungry blues and the desperate, going-to-the-river blues…. One important characteristic of the blues, however, is that it was created by a people determined, like Simple, to survive, and one method of survival is humor…. (p. 76)

Phillis R. Klotman, "Langston Hughes's Jesse B. Semple and the Blues," in PHYLON: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture (copyright, 1975, by Atlanta University; reprinted by permission of PHYLON), Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, First Quarter (March, 1975), pp. 68-77.

R. Baxter Miller

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 664

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 Black America during these 1920s. Especially vivid and biting is the portrait of the Black middle class in Washington…. Too often the autobiographical self of The Big Sea withdraws, and refuses to judge, but not here….

The Big Sea records a world in which Black snobbishness coexists with Black art….

In the last seventy-seven pages, especially, Hughes preserves the different tones of the Renaissance—humor, sadness, and irony. (p. 40)

Since the chronology of The Big Sea bewilders one, the reader interested merely in historical fact should look elsewhere…. Such a reader will lose something in the change, however, for The Big Sea preserves more than dates: it records colorful biography, the important people of an important time. (p. 41)

The Big Sea portrays Wallace Thurman and Zora Hurston more completely than it does Langston Hughes; for it creates a detached self, a Hughes that belongs in successful fiction—not the engaged self that should characterize skillful autobiography. This is a significant distinction, for the first self subordinates its identity to the observation of others and to the dramatic situations encountered; the second self, on the contrary, interprets both events and persons…. Memoir, however, is less a process of this human reaction and awareness than a writer's objective record of his times…. The Big Sea is a memoir. (p. 42)

It would be an oversimplification, however, to say, as George Kent does, that Hughes wrote two autobiographies without revealing himself. Since Hughes does show himself partly in The Big Sea, it is more accurate to make the distinction above. Although one catches rare glimpses of Hughes the man, this narrator often withdraws into obscurity and silence—leaves the reader on his own to make sense out of social or historical disorder. (pp. 42-3)

Hughes passes up two opportunities to create a distinct autobiographical self. His break with his patron, the major crisis of the book, is one. (p. 43)

In an enduring moment, Hughes chooses to lose many amenities of the world, but to regain his soul. Yet he never articulates this awareness.

Hughes's argument with Hurston over Mule Bone, the folk play on which they collaborated, provides a second opportunity [to create an autobiographical self], but again he withdraws from the necessary engagement and interpretation….

Although leaving these questions unanswered, The Big Sea preserves many of the moral values that inform Langston Hughes's literary world. (p. 44)

R. Baxter Miller, "'Even After I Was Dead': 'The Big Sea'—Paradox, Preservation, and Holistic Time," in Black American Literature Forum (© Indiana State University), Vol. 10, No. 4, Winter, 1976, pp. 39-45.

Richard K. Barksdale

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1699

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 Montage, however, the direct superimposition of the jazz mode on poetry does not always have felicitous results. One infelicitous result is the fragmentation of idea and mood. A somewhat more curious reader, for instance, would like to explore further the social and psychological implications of Leontyne Price's involvement in two conflicting cultures, or one would like to know more about the history behind the search for the black woman in the Negro quarters of Hispanic America. Is she only a symbol of the black woman raped or stolen by powerful masters or savored as one would savor "a little rum with sugar"? Or was she the one who, in fantasy or fact, was seen "fleeing with Lumumba"?

However, despite the lack of thematic continuity and despite the fact that in many places Ask Your Mama is reduced to a collage of quick and somewhat elusive impressions, there are occasional passages and images of impressive poetical power. (p. 114)

In many respects [Langston Hughes's final book of poetry, The Panther and the Lash,] is a somber book, devoid of racial comedy or humor. Within its pages there are no black folk characters luxuriating in the warm richness of the black experience; there are no happy blues singers, no Simples and no Madame Alberta K. Johnsons—no poems that celebrate the vibrancy and color of the black life-style. Instead, the emotional tone of the poems reflects the temper of the times. Between the publication of Ask Your Mama and Panther, America and the world had teetered on the brink of revolutionary racial change. (p. 119)

Where writers of other periods and cultures recollected past events and tried to divine their meaning, Hughes usually sought to assess the contemporary—to ferret out truths nestled in the context of current events and issues. His title, The Panther and the Lash—such a far cry from the black life-style titles given his other poetical volumes—suggests the bitter racial strife which was then shaking America from stem to stern. The "lash" symbolizes overt and covert white hostility to the black man's thrust for civil rights and first-class citizenship; and the "panther," political symbol of America's most militant racial group, symbolizes black anger and black separatism. Significantly enough, the volume is also subtitled "Poems of Our Times," and of the eighty-six, twenty-six had been written and published at an earlier time…. Intended at [the time of publication] to give an accurate appraisal of the brutal inequities of southern justice, the poems were still, in the 1960s, "poems of the times," suggesting that despite the passing decades, nothing much had changed. Similarly, several poems of racial protest, previously published in One-Way Ticket, Fields of Wonder, and Montage, acquired a new meaning and significance during the turbulent years of challenge and change in the 1960s. Thus, in his last volume of poetry Hughes earned an accolade bestowable on few of his fellow poets: he emerges as an artist who not only had the gift for trenchant analysis of the present but who, at the same time, could contemplate future vistas and read the wave of the future. In other words, even though he was the poet of rapid insight and fleet impressions, he rarely became so immersed in the particularities of a given moment that he forgot the future's debt to the present and the present's debt to the past.

Undoubtedly, the most effective poems in Panther are the new poems like "Junior Addict," the African poems, and poems on such contemporary happenings as the Birmingham church bombing and death on a Vietnam battlefield. All of these provide poetic comment on matters of the immediate moment, but the ideas contained therein have a certain thematic resiliency that will guarantee some relevancy for years to come. (pp. 121-22)

The six poems on Africa in Panther bear the broad title "African Question Mark." There are two kinds of poems in this group—three short poems full of generalized metaphorical comment on abstractions like race and freedom and hope and three longer poems reflecting the poet's direct confrontation with a specific racial event. The appropriateness of the juxtaposition of these two kinds of poems—poems of concrete statement and poems of abstract comment—has been observed above. All of the short poems were written earlier…. All three poems are reflective and inspirational in tone and seek to inculcate proper attitudes toward socially beneficial abstractions like freedom, color, justice, and racial equity. The other three poems reveal the other side of Hughes as a poet, for these are poems of direct comment on selected current events. Hence, their concern is with the particular, the concrete, and the contemporary. In both kinds of poems there is racial and social protest, but in the earlier short poems, the poet exhorts; in the three longer poems he excoriates…. In essence, the longer poems reveal Hughes at his impressionistic best, producing an impromptu art wrought out of the anger of the moment. (p. 123)

[A] poem in the volume reflecting an immediate, angry reaction to a gruesome racial incident is "Birmingham Sunday." Here again, the poet directly confronts an event that left most Americans silent and inarticulate in grief and disappointment. Evidently Hughes viewed himself in situations of this kind, as the spokesman-poet who was never permitted the luxury of emotional or esthetic distance from the consequences of man's inhumane behavior toward his fellowman. So, disciplined by his years of experience as a confrontation poet, he wrote … of the bombing of four little black children in a black church on a fateful Sunday morning…. Such a poem has a dramatic vigor and compressed emotion rarely found in the shorter poems on "Justice" and "Oppression." Yet the details of the poem underscore both the absence of justice and the presence of oppression. Poems like "Birmingham Sunday" underscore Hughes's ability to make a vigorous poetical pronouncement about those awesome and crushing events that leave ordinary people groping around in stunned silence. This ability makes him more than a "social poet"—a sobriquet used in Phylon in 1948 when he sought to describe his role and function as a poet. Actually, "Birmingham Sunday" [is a poem] of emotional confrontation. [It lacks] the blatant rhetorical violence of the confrontation poetry of the late 1960s, but [it contains] a strong man's forthright response to man's inhumanity to man. (pp. 124-25)

Richard K. Barksdale, "Requiem for 'A Dream Deferred'," in his Langston Hughes: The Poet and His Critics (copyright © 1977 by the American Library Association), American Library Association, 1977, pp. 99-131.


Hughes, (James) Langston (Vol. 10)


Hughes, (James) Langston (Vol. 5)