The yet today he is one of the

The
Blues and Langston Hughes

            Langston
Hughes is a respected and esteemed African American Icon. His poetry and
writing created a platform for black artists during the Harlem Renaissance, yet
today he is one of the few underappreciated names in modern American poetry. Despite
his pivotal role in the Harlem Renaissance, his poetry never receives the
respect it deserves among other poets because many feel it dwells too deeply in
the specifics of black culture. In addition to race and racism playing a key
role as to why he isn’t read as often as he should, powerful critics and
scholars often show little interest in black America, and as a result his work
is not celebrated in the way it should be (Abowitz). His less political and
more obscure blues poetry explores his hidden personal life, a side of Hughes
that is often overlooked. These works are excellent examples of how Hughes
helped shaped the modernist poetry movement.

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            Hughes
is a rather invisible figure in modern poetry, and is talked about very little
in the dialogue of modern fiction and poetry. He is usually lumped together
with other black writers and linked exclusively to the Harlem Renaissance. A
large part of this reason is because scholars feel is work is simple and
unlearned. Hughe’s himself even described his poetry technique as being simple,
claiming it should be the “epitome of simplicity” (Abowitz). Part of this can
been understood as Hughes wanting his work to be understood by a specific
audience: the black America of his time. It wouldn’t make sense for him to
create work relating to the struggles of African Americans if they couldn’t
identify or relate to his work. He used common language and drew inspiration
from the everyday lives of black Americans in addition to the hardships they
faced in their daily lives. Despite his work seeming simple, his material is
complex and layered.

            In
contrast to his more socio-political works, his love blues poems intimately
explore the world of his hidden sexuality. The poems written in between the
years 1924-1930 are interesting because they are written using the voices and
perspectives of both men and women (Zócalo Poets). A blues poem stems from the
African American oral and musical tradition of the blues, usually exploring the
themes of struggle, despair, and sex. It often follows the form in which a
statement is made in the first line, a variation of that same statement is given
in the second line, and a satirical alternative is declared in the third line
(poets.org).

            One
of his more famous poems “Subway Face” follows this form unequivocally. The
first line states “That I have been looking”, the second line follows “For you
all my life”. Both these statements are related to one another. The third line
declares an ironic and shocking statement with “Does not matter to you” and the
fourth line “You do not know” follows. The next stanza follows the same pattern
with lines one and two being “You never knew / Nor did I” and the third and
fourth line paradoxically stating “Now you take the Harlem train uptown / I
take a local down.” To the naked eye this short poem is deceivingly simple, yet
underneath there is real emotional despair and desolation buried within the
combination of these simple words in simple form. The voice or perspective is
ambiguous, and its content is relatable to anyone reader experiencing
aloneness.

            “Poem
(2)” is a glimpse into the world of his undisclosed homosexuality.  It reads ” I loved my friend / He went away
from me / There’s nothing more to say / The poem ends / Soft as it began / I
loved my friend”.  The reason why
scholars feel this specific poem gives insight on his sexuality is because it
reads from the perspective of a man loving another man and not being loved in
return. Again this poem explicitly follows the form of blues poetry, but is
more compact and delivers more of an emotional impact on the reader due to its
harshness and austerity. Both “Subway Face” and “Poem (2)” explore the
hardships of unrequited love. The fact Hughes was a closet homosexual during
this time also meant his feelings could never come forward, and in addition to
solitude and heartbreak, he struggled with never being able to openly express
himself romantically in the way he wanted.

            His
blues poems not only gave insight on his hidden personal life, but also
explored themes of negritude and black beauty. “Poem (4)” dedicated “To the
Black Beloved” follows the form of blues poetry loosely, but is nonetheless a
celebration of black exquisiteness and identity. The first stanza reads, “Ah /
My black one / Though art not beautiful / Yet thou hast / A Loveliness /
Surpassing beauty”. He is saying that even though the color of their skin is
seen as not being beautiful, they contain a “loveliness” that surpasses and
transcends the physical appearance of their skin. The second stanza reads, “Oh
/ My black one / Though art not good / Yet Thou hast / A purity / Surpassing
goodness”. Similarly, he is saying that although black people are not seen as
“good” by society, there is a purity and virtue within them.

 Lastly, in the final stanza he writes. “Ah /
My black one / Thou art not luminous / Yet an alter of jewels / An alter of
shimmering jewels / Would pale in the light / Of thy nightness”. Here he breaks
the pattern of the two previous stanzas to accentuate and reiterate the
symbolism of a jewel to an African American. The line “Though art not shining”
can be alluded to the constant weight of society oppressing the African
American, not allowing them not to “shine” and reach their full potential. He
reminds his reader they are jewels that evoke light and brilliance despite the
darkness of the skin and the oppression it brings in the line “of thy
nightness”.

            Langston
Hughes openly admitted how much he admired and was influenced by music in his
own work. When he was eleven years old, he first heard the blues being played
by a blind orchestra in Kansas City. He described the music having “the pulse
beat of people who keep on going” (Smithsonian). From then he wanted to write
poetry in that style. Historically, the lyrics of most blues music is weak on
it’s own because the music is generally given artistic priority. Wanting to
write specifically “blues” is difficult as well because there is a balance
between not making the written content too poeticized and less like lyrics.

Hughes was really the first to combine the two, and allowed this style to convey
the African American experience in people’s own vernacular language
(Smithsonian).

            This
style is just a scratch of the undeniable and incredible diversity in Hughes’s
poetry. His work was embraced by working class black Americans that could
finally recognize and relate to a voice in the literature world. He was a
unique writer during the Harlem Renaissance because he wrote in ways that
deferred from always depicting black Americans optimistically. He wrote of
every day life and every day people. He often had black characters in his
writings that were drunk, lazy, sexual, and violent. He wrote of working class
people, and without diminishing his extraordinary work in uplifting black
culture in his more political writing, there are countless other themes and
topics relatable to all readers of his poetry. Despite writing of everyday
working class people, he encouraged black Americans to partake in the artistic
activities that separated blacks and whites during the Harlem Renaissance.

There was no reason that blacks shouldn’t be painting sunsets or writing
sonnets in addition to expressing themselves in historically black traditions
like blues and jazz. He is quoted saying:

“We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express
our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are
pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are
beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored
people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t
matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we
stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves (Abowitz)”.

 

Hughes’s
actively advocating for black civil rights shouldn’t be something that
separates him from the literary world from discussion of great contemporary
white poets and writers like Robert Frost or E.E Cummings. Hughes’s subject matter
is far more relatable than some of the topics depicted by white writers of the
time, who often separated themselves so far from the everyday person their
writing seems like it belongs from a different era. Hughes’s usage of music and
jazz meters in his poetry are far more approachable to a wider audience than
the complicated pentameters used by other poets. Lastly, the issues Hughes’s so
passionately wrote about regarding civil rights issues are sadly still seen
today. Racism and police brutality is still prevalent in everyday life, and if
there is any poetry to be studied and celebrated during these times, it is his.