Review: Selected Poems of Langston Hughes

March 10, 2011 Comments Off on Review: Selected Poems of Langston Hughes

I am moved by this book to say something sacrilegious: I don’t think Langston Hughes is a great poet. BAM! Bolts of lightning from every middle school English teacher who has ever existed. I think he is perceptive and passionate and has a flair for turns of phrase, but he is not a Poet the way T.S. Eliot is a Poet. (It was probably bad to read them right after one another.) In fact, his poetry is rather like mine: short, simple poems whose point is one elegant line or multilayered thought—by no means terribly profound or great. And I’m sure he was important at the time because of his use of dialect and slang and his blunt demands for freedom and equality. A lot of his poems are fun to read but very few of them are Great Poems. Two poems from the final section, “The Negro Mother” and “Freedom’s Plow,” are long, heartfelt, immature poems such as you might gather from an eighth-grade class to whom you had assigned a free-verse poem, at least 25 lines, about “freedom.”

It may be accidental, but Hughes does a good impression of the contemporary black American who can’t quite find his place in society, or his voice. He flops around between heavy dialect and erudite eloquence, and points in between. The erudite poems often have a great rhythm to them, and the dialect poems sound like good blues lyrics—not great to read on their own, but if someone were to accompany them with drums and slow electric guitar, they’d really be something. He writes a lot from a female perspective, but it’s mostly about abusive relationships. He especially favors call-and-response: some poems are written as conversations, with short stanzas that alternate speakers, and others are narrated neutrally except for one or two lines tossed out by a biased character. It’s sort of an interesting style, and in some ways it matches his tone, except it’s still not enough to make it really remarkable poetry.

It’s a fast read, though, which I appreciate after struggling with Eliot. My latest scheme is to keep a book of poetry out on the table and read one poem a day, because otherwise I lose focus and all the poems run together. But this one was easy to read in big chunks, because there wasn’t a whole lot of thinking needed—most poems could be felt rather than analyzed. Some of them were fun and I guess I liked it overall, I’m just disappointed to find that Hughes isn’t as great as they told me in eighth grade.

EXCERPT: “Trumpet Player”

The Negro
With the trumpet at his lips
Has dark moons of weariness
Beneath his eyes
Where the smoldering memory
Of slave ships
Blazed to the crack of whips
About his thighs.

The Negro
With the trumpet at his lips
Has a head of vibrant hair
Tamed down,
Patent-leathered now
Until it gleams
Like jet—
Were jet a crown.

The music
From the trumpet at his lips
Is honey
Mixed with liquid fire.
The rhythm
From the trumpet at his lips
Is ecstasy
Distilled from old desire—

Desire
That is longing for the moon
Where the moonlight’s but a spotlight
In his eyes,
Desire
That is longing for the sea
Where the sea’s a bar-glass
Sucker size.

The Negro
With the trumpet at his lips
Whose jacket
Has a fine one-button roll,
Does not know
Upon what riff the music slips
Its hypodermic needle
To his soul—

But softly
As the tune comes from his throat
Trouble
Mellows to a golden note.

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