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Langston Hughes and the RNC: the 1920s - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

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Langston Hughes and the RNC: the 1920s [Jul. 19th, 2016|07:01 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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I turned on my Twitter feed long enough to see that Donald Trump is the official nominee, as we have known he would be for weeks now. They have various people doing the sorts of things a convention does. So here’s your reminder from Langston Hughes that I, Too.

“I, Too” (also often called “I, Too, Sing America”) is both prophetic in an era when our current President is Black, and not prophetic enough. All sorts of Americans are still being sent to eat in the kitchen. It’s also one of the most openly political poems Hughes published in the 1920s. Not that he was apolitical at the time, but he had not come into his full fierceness until the end of that decade–the section I read today was the section of his poems from the 1920s, and they had a lot of jazz lyrics, a lot of blues lyrics, a lot of things that were cultural references, whose political stance was inherent by what they considered important enough to write a poem about, who they considered important enough to write a poem for, rather than overt.

One of the clearest things going on in American history of the time that’s showing up in Hughes’ poems was the Great Migration. Poems like The South and “Migration” are chronicling one of the greatest and most influential movements of people inside the US, ever, and one that was not taught in American history when I was in school. (I hope it is now.) Even some poems that have the form of nature poems are implicitly from the perspective of someone for whom nature has changed, grown chillier and more seasonally sharpened–someone who has gone north.

One of the poems I liked best from this era is one that I can’t find easily online because it’s also the title of a Hughes biography, “Dreamer.” It’s short, and I think some of you will need it, so I’m going to put it here, with more tomorrow. It’s a very young man’s poem. There is nothing wrong with that. Sometimes there is a great deal right with that.


I take my dreams

And make of them a bronze vase

And a wide round fountain

With a beautiful statue in its center,

And a song with a broken heart,

And I ask you:

Do you understand my dreams?

Sometimes you say you do

And sometimes you say you don’t.

Either way

It doesn’t matter.

I continue to dream.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux


[User Picture]From: tiger_spot
2016-07-24 05:09 am (UTC)
(I find myself able to process poetry only a few poems at a time before they all start to blur together, plus I have been trapped under a newborn and my Collected Poems is really heavy and therefore not very compatible with being trapped under a newborn. Which is to say I am still in the 1920s and proceeding slowly.)

One thing that struck me about the poems in this decade -- and I haven't got past it yet so I'm not sure how much it changes later -- is the use of language. A lot of these have very heavy use of dialect spellings, in a way that strikes me as odd looking back from a modern perspective in which dialect spelling is generally regarded as othering. Then there are a few that have very Shakespearean language and images.

"Formula", I think, reflects Hughes grappling with the effects of the different choices available in both language and topics on how his works are being received and what he wants to do about it.

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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-07-24 05:38 pm (UTC)
I think it changes somewhat later. Particularly I think that Hughes goes more toward word choice rather than dialect spellings to indicate use of dialect. Madam Johnson (Alberta K), for example, is not phoneticized, and that I think allows her to reach kinds of audiences that she wouldn't as a character if she was "sho nuff"-ing and other dialect spellings--but also she is speaking in a very particular mode that Hughes captures perfectly.

But yes, "Formula" knows exactly what he's doing, and is having a good wrestle with it.
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2016-07-30 07:57 pm (UTC)
Late to this particular poetry party, but I've been enjoying the poems from the 1920s very much, to the point of photographing several of them for later review. "The South" and "Migration" are rough reading, as are the likes of "Drama for Winter Night (Fifth Avenue)", with its constant refrain of 'You can't stay/die here'.

Hughes' use of dialect spellings is interesting; ETA: there are definitely a lot more poems in the second half of the chapter using dialect. I assume he was coding specific information about the poem's narrator into its use, though obviously even then the effect is somewhat problematic (especially in the multiple female-narrated poems I just read.)

My conclusion, about halfway through the 1920s section of this book, is that I need to read more (good) poetry.

Edited at 2016-07-30 08:08 pm (UTC)
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