On Langston Hughes: Pioneering poet — The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel
The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel, editors. Knopf, 1994. $30.
Briefly, I felt desolate.
For weeks I had thrilled while reading from cover to cover The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, reacquainting myself with old friends and, more joyously, meeting the 226 poems never before included in a Hughes collection. Intoxicated, I had reveled in it hour after hour, reluctant to eat or sleep, irritable when the phone called me away, slack when confronted with other duties. How could any Hughes lover do anything but immerse his or her life in the volume, so full of treasures, old and new, offering many more rewards than even enthusiasts might expect.
Then, however, I had finished the book. And now I’d read them all, I feared, bereft, that never again would I meet another new poem–well, new to me–by a poet I love so well. Then I cheered up, as I recalled that other Hughes poems do await us because Arnold Rampersad and his associate editor, David Roessel, did not, after all, publish everything. They excluded his several hundred unpublished poems preserved at Yale University’s Beinecke Library, those juvenilia published in high school and college magazines (the Central High School Monthly Magazine, the Columbia University Spectator, and The Oracle of Omega Psi Phi fraternity) but never thereafter reprinted, as well as poems contained only in his autobiographies and biographies and those (ten in all) which appeared for the first time in the posthumous Good Morning Revolution. In a sense, they have let Hughes decide upon the selection: They include juvenilia h republished and adult poems which he decided to publish, while they exclude those Hughes himself either rejected or forgot about–or, in some cases, which editors may have refused.
For scholars and enthusiasts eager to read everything by Hughes, the editors should perform another great service by issuing a limited print-run volume of the juvenilia and unpublished poems. But the current collection well serves the general reader and provides an excellent source of Hughes’s poetry for those scholars who heretofore have settled for much less.
Of the 860 selections, 212 have never before appeared in any book. Fourteen have not appeared in a Hughes collection, and 33 have only been published in such early, limited editions as A New Song and Dear Lovely Death. All the poems from each of Hughes’s sixteen volumes of poetry published during his lifetime appear within these covers, as do 52 titles found in Good Morning Revolution. Considering that only that posthumous publication and five of the earlier books currently are in print, this appropriate inclusivity proves particularly helpful. But we especially must rejoice because this volume publishes 259 poems which most of us will never have seen before. By comparison to the 187 titles in Selected Poems–the volume many of us rely on–the 860 in this book prove an amazing treasure trove. Such inclusivity permits readers to decide for themselves how to use the volume and what to value.
In addition to the poems, Rampersad and Roessel provide 77 pages of notes, a chronology of the poet’s life, and a short introduction. The notes discuss the poems’ provenance and publication history and explain both revisions Hughes made and some allusions, but they do not engage in critical exegesis. In these notes, readers can discover additions or deletions of dialect, relineation, changed wording, or lines which Hughes added or cut. For example, p.622, note 77 informs us what dialect he cut from “Misery” for Selected Poems. On p.623, note 78 on “Down and Out” prints the last stanza, which the poet eventually cut. The editors provide other textual variants involving whole deleted stanzas in poems such as “A New Song” on p.635, and “Militant” on p.630. This permits us to examine Hughes’s revision process throughout his career. The index of first lines helps us to discover that identical poems have appeared under variant titles in previous volumes. The scholarly apparatus likewise corrects and augments Donald Dickinson’s A Bio-bibliography of Langston Hughes., 2nd ed., revised (New York: Archon Books, 1972). For all this data, every Hughes scholar owes the editors a debt of gratitude for their invaluable, time-consuming and impeccable scholarship.
Publication of the poems in chronological, rather than thematic, order permits appreciation of what issues occupied Hughes during which periods, the ways in which his work remained consistent and the ways it contrasted or changed, what poems he had available when he collected his work periodically, what he chose to include and exclude from these collections, and the many poems from each part of his publishing life which, for one reason or another, have either never before appeared in book form or only now will receive wide circulation because of the previous book’s obscurity.
We should recall W. Edward Farrison appreciating the need for such a chronological arrangement when, in his otherwise enthusiastic review for CLAJ of Faith Berry’s Good Morning Revolution,(1) he complained, “If the editor had arranged the poems within the several groups in order of their first appearance in print, which probably approximated the order of their composition, she would have facilitated the reader’s interest in following the development of many of Hughes’s ideas” (434). Wisely, Rampersad and Roessel have done exactly that.
Publication of this collection nearly thirty years after his death will permit reassessment of Hughes’s poetry as a more important body of work than some people may appreciate today. Laid out before us all under one cover, these 860 poems impress us with their accessibility, their innovative forms and subjects, their passion or humor, and their variety. He likewise left us such memorable famous quotations as: “life for me ain’t been no crystal chair,” “black like me, ” “I’ve known rivers,” “I, too, sing America./I am the darker brother,” “Nobody loves a genius child,” “I dream a world,” “the boogie-woogie rumble/Of a dream deferred,” “I had a dream,” “a raisin in the sun,” and “Old Walt Whitman/Went finding and seeking.” With these and other phrases, Hughes has enriched American culture.
Hughes appeals to a broad spectrum of humanity–children; adolescents heretofore convinced they hate poems; musicians; casual readers; poetry lovers; teachers; critics; scholars. He wrote something for readers of every race, both genders, any age, any class or degree of education. Surely no poet has ever appealed to any wider spectrum of readers.
Although often seemingly simple and easy, the poems frequently provide considerable matter for analysis and exegesis of form and substance. Hughes had mastered western forms and versified traditional western subjects, but almost from the outset h also published free-spirited flouting of middle-class norms in verse either free or freely metered. He often broke loose from convention: moving into uncharted territory, offending, with earthy, hip poems, some of his race’s “talented 10th” in the process, but also winning himself a place among the eternal masters. He helped make much subsequent twentieth-century poetry possible.
Carl Sandburg’s Jazz Fantasies, published in 1919, probably influenced Hughes. He did not invent jazz poetry, but he did popularize and perfect it. Hughes pioneered a folk poetry combining black musical forms and African-American cultural content, appropriately reflecting the content in the style. He popularized the poetic formulation of musical forms–the blues, jazz, gospel, spirituals, marches, ragtime, swing, be-bop, and boogie-woogie. A precursor of the beat poets, by the fifties and sixties, when they were experimenting with his rhythms, he was injecting into his own work dissonance (from the newer jazz) and increasing discord reflecting urban strife and the civil rights movement. Throughout his career, Hughes exploded constricted verse forms and opened them up to rhythmic innovation which we now take for granted.
Yes, Hughes also wrote some doggerel. This type of verse has its place and nobody does it more cleverly than Hughes. He also excels at polemic and at occasional verse inspired by specific events. He served his causes and convictions with topical poems, and the editorial notes augment our understanding of these. But he likewise provides us with lyric, descriptive, narrative, and–in monologues and dialogues–dramatic verse we can readily enjoy without assistance.
In these poems Hughes evinces his capacity to disappear, to erase himself and to create instead the persona of someone else, very likely uneducated, possibly sad or bitter or playful. The dramatis personae whom he brings to life–urban and rural, educated and not, young and old, happy and sad, ambitious and not, northern and southern, American and not, black and not, male and female, engaged in all manner of employment and idleness, humanity in all its infinite variety–capture a culture or, really, many cultures.
To sample the diversity of the African Americans he celebrates, turn to “Laughers” on pages 27 and 28, where he describes
Nurses of babies,
Loaders of ships,
Comedians in vaudeville
And band-men in circuses-
who, of course, he considers “Loud-mouthed laughers in the hands/Of Fate.”
The musicality of Hughes’s rhythmical, melodious poetry has prompted many composers to score it. Yet so deftly does he evoke music and musicians that the actual notes may seem superfluous. The editors’ chronological arrangement permits us to hear the modulations over the decades. In “The Weary Blues,” Hughes tells us “Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,/Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,/I heard a Negro play,” and we attend as “Thump, thump, thump went his foot on the floor” (50). More than twenty years later, the poet evokes another African-American musician: “The music/From the trumpet at his lips,/Is honey/Mixed with liquid fire./The rhythm/From the trumpet at his lips/Is ecstacy/Distilled from old desire . . .” (338). Two years after that, Hughes writes in One Way Ticket’s “Song for Billie Holiday,” after her first imprisonment for drug possession, “Voice of muted trumpet,/Cold brass in warm air/Bitter television blurred/By sound that shimmers–/Where?” (360). In yet another two years, with the publication of Montage of a Dream Deferred, Hughes in “Flatted Fifths” borrows the rhythms of be-bop in order to jive: “Little cullud boys in berets/oop-pop-a-da/horse a fantasy of days/ool ya koo/and dig all plays” (404). Indeed the poems in this 1951 volume, more fluid than those of his youth, and written for dozens of voices in a “Chocolate-custard/Pie of a town” (429), positively sing, while their syncopation gets our feet tapping and our joints twitching.
This collection also enables us to appreciate how many of the poems feature Hughes the playwright, who creates dramatic dialogues and monologues and provides stage directions on how to read the verse, what music should accompany it, and even what costume the performer should wear. A significant playwright himself, in his poetry Hughes evinces theatrical sensibilities comparable to those of Charles Dickens in his dramatic public readings of his novels.
Take, for example, the sequence of six poems which comprise The Negro Mother. Hughes intends an actor to read, over martial music, “The Colored Soldier,” a dramatic-monologue-within-a-dramatic-monologue which ironically contrasts a dead soldier’s vision of brotherhood with racist reality (147-8). The poet introduces this set piece with stage directions. Then, down the left margin, parallel to the poem’s text, he continues his instructions. Hughes achieves similar theatrical effects with the other character studies in this sequence. “Broke” amuses us with the trials of a down-and-out chap who finds a gainfully employed woman to support him, while the four more serious poems characterize the pathos of “The Black Clown,” the braggadocio of “The Big Timer,” the aspirations of “The Negro Mother” for her children, and the hopeful “Dark Youth of the U.S.A.”
If the latter poem proves but a tepid afterthought, the ballad “Death in Harlem” suggests Robert Service’s “Ballad of Dan McGrew,” except that here, in Dixie’s bar on 133rd, a jealous Arabella Johnson shoots and kills Bessie, who has put the moves on a sugar daddy named the Texas kid (179-83). In “Air Raid Over Harlem,” subtitled “Scenario for a Little Black Movie” (185-88), the poet proffers a racial lesson under the guise of cinematic action and dialogue.
The note to the dramatic monologue “August 19th . . .” (204-6), which previously has appeared only in the Daily Worker, offers Hughes’s stage directions, and the note to “Lynching Song” (640-41) includes the stage directions for this and two other poems. His choral “Chant for May Day” provides Hughes’s arrangement for specific numbers of voices on specific lines.
“Ballad of the Seven Songs: A Poem for Emancipation Day” (342351)–a dramatic occasional piece–cries out for reading aloud on the radio, perhaps for the birthday of Lincoln or King. It also begs to be set to music. How unbelievable that this long poem has not appeared in one of Hughes’s previous collections.
Hughes also wrote “Ask Your Mama” to be read aloud accompanied by blues, jazz, and African and European music, often used to comic effect. His stage directions in the left margin address the type of music required. These hip, flip, strident, angry, funny, insulting jazz verses conclude with the explanations of “Liner Notes For the Poetically Unhep.” This urban and urbane theatrical poem seems a long way from the earlier folk poetry.
Readers will spot many other poems which constitute one-act plays, complete with characters, dialogue, and action. Don’t miss “Drama for Winter Night (Fifth Avenue)” (47), which begins “You can’t sleep here,/My good man” and takes the poor fellow through two evictions, a fall in the street, and a delirious confrontation with the Almighty, before onlookers call for his ouster from the corner where he collapsed.
Some scholar would surely compare the theatrical poems and plays, if only a comparable complete collection of Hughes’s work for the stage existed. We can hope that now Arnold Rampersad will turn his attention to compiling such a collection.
The Complete Poems certainly confirms suspicions that Hughes fixated upon death, whether with humor or with pathos. Quite a few such poems have appeared before only in periodicals. Among these, the dialect blues “Red Roses” takes as its speaker a woman postponing her death until spring because “It’s bad enough to die but/I don’t want freezin’ too” (84). Hughes revised the affecting “The Consumptive” after it appeared in Dear Lovely Death: the title poem of that volume is not as telling as the description of this man “feeling life go” (157). Readers will also discover three comical reflections upon death–previously published only, appropriately, in Hearse–such as “Casual,” which begins “Death don’t ring no doorbells./Death don’t knock” (459). Or they might prefer the change of pace in another poem “new” to us, “Number,” which sets the scene “When faith in black candles/and in the nothing at all/on clocks runs out . . .” (536). Readers also can trace the way throughout his life Hughes often considered mortality in relation to racism and war.
Some fans will scan the book in pursuit of satire, while others will unearth humorous character studies or verbal wit. The former mustn’t miss his mockery of intellectuals in “Wise Men” (107), “Ph.D.” (161-2), and “Letter to the Academy” (169), and they will enjoy his sending up proper mercantilists in “The English” (129) and colonialists in “Envoy to Africa” (441), which begins “My name is Lord Piggly-Wiggly Wogglesfoot Brown.” Or perhaps they’d prefer the ironic “Ballad of Roosevelt,” in which the parents enjoin the hungry child: “We’re waitin’ on Roosevelt, son,/Roosevelt, Roosevelt,/Just waitin’ on Roosevelt” (178), or the antidote to homophobia in “Cafe: 3 a.m. ” (406). The latter will surely delight in “Argument ” (87-8), “If-ing” (226), and “Watch Out, Papa” (232), as well as hitherto unfamiliar Madam poems such as “Madam and the Army”–“They put my boy-friend/in 1-A”–and “Madam and the Movies”–“I love Romance./That’s where I’m weak” (283-4). They will also prize the humerous insights into human nature packed into “Do You Reckon?” (444) and “Mean Old Yesterday” (448) and the more rueful jibes at race relations in “Brotherly Love: A Little Letter to the White Citizens of the South” (453) and “Crowns and Garlands” (551).
Hughes balances his humor with fury, lashing out at violence and at oppression, whether racist or merely economic. If you previously have read only excerpts of “Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria,” its ironic anger will stun you. Among the numerous other unfamiliar or less familiar political or revolutionary pieces–some of them poems Hughes dared not circulate to a wide audience–do not neglect “Negro Ghetto” (137), “A New Song” (170-2), “Wait” (174), “One More ‘S’ in the U.S.A.” (176-7), “Song of Spain” (195-97), “Dear Mr. President” (271-21, “Northern Liberal” (541), “Dinner Guest: Me” (547-8), and “The Kids in School with Me” (601).
Although readers doubtless will know Hughes’s race poems best, they will find examples new to them scattered throughout this collection and concentrated in its first appendix, composed of works published by members of the Associated Negro Press. Numerous poems take as their subjects events in black history; two chronicle that with an epic sweep. You likely will not have read elsewhere “Prelude to Our Age: A Negro History Poem” (379-84) or the briefer but nevertheless comprehensive “A Ballad of Negro History” (434-6).
This collection offers several surprises. Two take the form of late poems uncharacteristic of the author’s other work–if one can generalize at all about such a diverse oeuvre. In 1960 Hughes published “The Jesus” under the pseudonym “Durwood Collins” (468-9). Its title refers both to religion and to a specific slave ship of this name. Although its difficult syntax relinquishes its meaning upon several readings, Hughes has never seemed less accessible. Or consider the 1961 “doorknobs,” which more whimsically describes fears of others–not xenophobia or racism, but panic at anyone else entering or getting close. “The simple silly terror/of a doorknob on a door/that turns to let in life/on two feet standing,” Hughes begins, and then he continues, still all in one sentence, for twenty-one more lines (537). From an earlier era, we may not previously have encountered “Red Clay Blues,” a collaboration between Hughes and Richard Wright (212-13)–yet another of the efforts evidently not previously published in a book. And every time we think we’ve got Hughes categorized, he throws us another curve, such as “Carolina Cabin.” which warmly evokes an idyllic spot “Where two people/Make a home” (33), or “Second Generation: New York,” which speaks of an Irish mother and Polish father who recall memories their Manhattan child cannot share (351-2).
We should experience no amazement, on the other hand, at how pertinent to today we find so many of the less-known poems from the pen of a poet born nearly a century ago. Check out “God to Hungry Child” (48)or send it to your congressional representative–as well as “Memo to Non-White Peoples” (456) and the grim “Expendable” (457). Nor will Hughes’s repeated celebration of his people through the years (e.g. “The Heart of Harlem,” 311-12) surprise us.
Don’t believe you already own all of Hughes’s poetry worth reading. Give away your copy of Selected Poems and buy The Collected Poems, which will make you feel like you’ve just discovered a thick holograph Hughes manuscript tucked away in your attic.
1. Farrison, W. Edward. “Book Review,” CLAJ (March 1974), 434-7.
Copyright World Poetry, Incorporated Nov 1995
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