Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri on February 1st 1902. Most prominently known for his exemplary writing and contributions to the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes has left a lasting impression on American Literature. Hughes was a multi-talented writer. As a poet, playwright, and novelist, he published widely, becoming one of the most successful and well respected writers of his time. He’s also considered one of the chief innovators of Jazz Poetry, a form which emulates, and is inspired by Jazz and African-American culture.
Learning From Langston Hughes
One of his most famous poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” speaks of a soul that is keenly aware of the history that precedes the self, reminding us that the river has come before us all. His poems speak of the rich history of African-Americans and their contributions to American life. The poet’s depth and awareness give the reader insight, showing us what has come before us, making his poems not just an exploration of history, but an exposition of the heritage hidden in the common places we inhabit in the world.
Langston Hughes himself provides an articulate explanation of how he composed the poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” in an audio clip made available by Poets.org. In the clip, he talks of the harrowing descriptions of slaves being “sold down the river,”and what that meant to him as he wrote this great poem. The audio clip will prove helpful to writers, especially if you’re a writer who is constantly wondering, “Where do these poems come from?” I always enjoy hearing poets read their own work. It gives you a different appreciation of the poem to hear their voice resonating with its own particular music. Poets almost always give you some inclination as to how their life experience was the seed that helped germinate the idea they crafted into the finished poem.
Many of the best poems come from the personal lives of the poet. For Langston Hughes, his experience as a black man in the first half of the 20th century meant he was often faced with considerable racial tensions. He used his writing as a vehicle for telling this story, drawing others into the inner world of the African-American life. One of his most notable works, The Weary Blues, (1926) is testament to this fact. He spent time associating with Jazz musicians in clubs, working odd jobs, and connecting with other writers. All of this informed his poetry, making every poem deeply personal, even autobiographical. Hughes was the kind of writer who allowed himself to be vulnerable, to trust his instinctual desire to bare his soul before the waiting world, exposing his humanity, and therefore inviting others to share in the moment.
Jazz meant life to Hughes, it meant the sound you hear when you walk out the door on your way to work, a baby crying, an old man yelling at his wife as he slammed the door. It was all Jazz. In fact, in a essay titled Jazz as Communication, Langston Hughes said, “To me jazz is a montage of a dream deferred. A great big dream—yet to come—and always yet—to become ultimately and finally true.” This emphasis on a sustained hope, which was also a hope that didn’t come easy, was what made Jazz Poetry unique. In some ways, everyone experiences Jazz on that level. Its analogue is the blues, and they are one in the same, both characterized by perseverance in the face of sadness.
As he said in his poem, entitled “Dreams,” much along the same lines:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
In a lot of ways Hughes dream is still paying dividends to countless new poets like Major Jackson, or one of my personal favorites, Yusef Komunyakaa. It’s no wonder why. Poetry keeps coming full circle. The Jazz keeps on playing, and the times are still hard, but people refuse to let their dreams die, and that’s why our souls continue to grow deep like the river.
Read More Poems by Langston Hughes around the web: