It’s all over but the shouting from the RNC. Wait. It was all shouting all along, and we have three and a half months of shouting left before the general. And the DNC still to come. Well, luckily for everybody there are tons more great American poets to read? I guess?
In the meantime, the rest of Langston Hughes. He was a national figure by this time in his life–commenting occasionally in verse on his position, the difficulties of reputation and the particular type of fame that comes of being a political poet and writer and particularly a Black American political poet and writer.
This is where the big projects come in, Montage of a Dream Deferred and the jazz settings Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz. The latter are so thoroughly performance pieces that while I understand why they were reprinted–this is attempting to be a comprehensive collection that I’ve read, after all–I feel that it’s almost impossible to assess them as written works. They’re an interesting thing for a poet to want to do, an interactive form. But as words on a page, they don’t work very well.
The former, though. You almost certainly know the one that gets called Dream Deferred, whose title is listed in this volume as “Harlem,” the one that starts, “What happens to a dream deferred?” It’s only one in a large sequence, one that talks about difficulty making rent, buying shoes, finding one’s way. Difficulty and triumph and…vivid small detail, is how I suppose I would put it. These are life poems, people poems, neighbor poems of Harlem. A lot of them are brief, like the straightforward Tell Me; others paint pictures of a rising 1950s urban black population, finding its way and its voice, like Theme for English B. I think my favorite out of the entire series is Deferred, which elegantly and simply encapsulates the concept. It’s very real, very human.
There’s a lot more straightforward religious poetry in this period of Hughes’ life–anyone who thought that the earlier “Goodbye Christ” meant that he was a raging atheist would have a hard time constructing the argument with the evidence provided. The politics of the time keep providing him with unfortunately ample material for commentary, as of course they would into the present if he’d lived that long, but after the war, into the ’50s, housing became increasingly important. Little Song on Housing showed with bitter good humor that integration was not immediate solution one might have hoped. And one of the poems that still could hold true for so many people, in so many situations, in today’s politics, is Impasse.
We’re still in that same impasse so much of the time. It’s a good one to end on. It’s a good one to try to get out of.