Langston Hughes: Critical Perspectives Past and Present

Langston Hughes: Critical Perspectives Past and Present

by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
     
 

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James Langston Hughes
(1902 — 1967)

With a career that spanned the Harlem Renaissance of the twenties and Black Arts movement of the sixties, Langston Hughes was the most prolific Black poet of his era. Between 1926, when he published his pioneering The Weary Blues, to 1967, the year of his death, when he published The Panther and the Lash,

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Overview

James Langston Hughes
(1902 — 1967)

With a career that spanned the Harlem Renaissance of the twenties and Black Arts movement of the sixties, Langston Hughes was the most prolific Black poet of his era. Between 1926, when he published his pioneering The Weary Blues, to 1967, the year of his death, when he published The Panther and the Lash, Hughes would write sixteen books of poems, two novels, seven collections of short stories, two autobiographies, five works of nonfiction, and nine children's books; he would edit nine anthologies of poetry, folklore, short fiction, and humor. He also translated Jaques Roumain, Nicolás Guillén, Gabriela Mistral, Federico Garcia Lorca, and write at least thirty plays. It is not surprising that Hughes was known, variously, as "Shakespeare in Harlem" and as the "poet laureate of the American Negro."

— from the Preface by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781567430295
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
07/28/1993
Series:
Literary Series
Pages:
272
Product dimensions:
6.04(w) x 9.04(h) x 0.76(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Weary Blues (1926)
Countee Cullen
Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, February 1926

Here is a poet with whom to reckon, to experience, and here and there, with that apologetic feeling of presumption that should companion all criticism, to quarrel.

What has always struck me most forcibly in reading Mr. Hughes' poems has been their utter spontaneity and expression of a unique personality. This feeling is intensified with the appearance of his work in concert between the covers of a book. It must be acknowledged at the outset that these poems are peculiarly Mr. Hughes' and no one's else. I cannot imagine his work as that of any other poet, not even of any poet of that particular group of which Mr. Hughes is a member. Of course, a microscopic assiduity might reveal derivation and influences, but these are weak undercurrents in the flow of Mr. Hughes' own talent. This poet represents a transcendently emancipated spirit among a class of young writers whose particular battle-cry is freedom. With the enthusiasm of a zealot, he pursues his way, scornful, in subject matter, in photography, and rhythmical treatment, of whatever obstructions time and tradition have placed before him. To him it is essential that he be himself Essential and commendable surely; yet the thought persists that some of these poems would have been better had Mr. Hughes held himself a bit in check. In his admirable introduction to the book, Carl Van Vechten says the poems have a highly deceptive air of spontaneous improvisation. I do not feel that the air is deceptive.

If I have the least powers of prediction,the first section of this book, The Weary Blues, will be most admired, even if less from intrinsic poetic worth than because of its dissociation from the traditionally poetic. Never having been one to think all subjects and forms proper for poetic consideration, I regard these jazz poems as interlopers in the company of the truly beautiful poems in other sections of the book. They move along with the frenzy and electric heat of a Methodist or Baptist revival meeting, and affect me in much the same manner. The revival meeting excites me, cooling and flushing me with alternate chills and fevers of emotion; so do these poems. But when the storm is over, I wonder if the quiet way of communing is not more spiritual for the God-seeking heart; and in the light of reflection I wonder if jazz poems really belong to that dignified company, that select and austere circle of high literary expression which we call poetry. Surely, when in Negro Dancers Mr. Hughes says

Me an' ma baby's
Got two mo' ways,
Two mo' ways to do de buck!

he voices, in lyrical, thumb-at-nose fashion the happy careless attitude, akin to poetry, that is found in certain types. And certainly he achieves one of his loveliest lyrics in Young Singer. Thus I find myself straddling a fence. It needs only The Cat and The Saxaphone, however, to knock me over completely on the side of bewilderment, and incredulity. This creation is a tour de force of its kind, but is it a poem:

EVERYBODY
Half-pint,-
Gin?
No, make it
LOVES MY BABY
corn. You like
don't you, honey?
BUT MY BABY .............

In the face of accomplished fact, I cannot say This will never do, but I feel that it ought never to have been done.

But Mr. Hughes can be as fine and as polished as you like, etching his work in calm, quiet lyrics that linger and repeat themselves. Witness Sea Calm:

How still,
How strangely still
The water is today.
It is not good
For water
To be so still that way.

Or take Suicide's Note:

The Calm,
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss.

Then crown your admiration with Fantasy in Purple, this imperial swan-song that sounds like the requiem of a dying people:

Beat the drums of tragedy for me,
Beat the drums of tragedy and death.
And let the choir sing a stormy song
To drown the rattle of my dying breath.
Beat the drums of tragedy for me,
And let the white violins whir thin and slow,
But blow one blaring trumpet note of sun
To go with me to the darkness where I go.

Mr. Hughes is a remarkable poet of the colorful; through all his verses the rainbow riots and dazzles, yet never wearies the eye, although at times it intrigues the brain into astonishment and exaggerated admiration when reading, say something like Caribbean Sunset:

God having a hemorrhage,
Blood coughed across the sky,
Staining the dark sea red:
That is sunset in the Caribbean.

Taken as a group the selections in this book seem one-sided to me. They tend to hurl this poet into the gaping pit that lies before all Negro writers, in the confines of which they become racial artists instead of artists pure and simple. There is too much emphasis here on strictly Negro themes; and this is probably an added reason for my coldness toward the jazz poems -- they seem to set a too definite limit upon an already limited field.

Dull books cause no schisms, raise no dissensions, create no parties. Much will be said of The Weary Blues because it is a definite achievement, and because Mr. Hughes, in his own way, with a first book that cannot be dismissed as merely promising, has arrived.

Jessie Faucet
The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races, March 1926

Very perfect is the memory of my first literary acquaintance with Langston Hughes. In the unforgettable days when we were publishing The Brownies' Book we had already appreciated a charming fragile conceit which read:

Out of the dust of dreams,
Fairies weave their garments;
Out of the purple and rose of old memories,
They make purple wings.
No wonder we find them such marvelous things.
Langston Hughes. Copyright � by Henry Gates. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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