Langston Hughes | Critical Review by Henry Taylor

This literature criticism consists of approximately 9 pages of analysis & critique of Langston Hughes.
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Critical Review by Henry Taylor

SOURCE: "He Heard America Jiving," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. XCIX, No. 52, December 12, 1994, p. 15.

In the following review of The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, Taylor states that the quality of the poems is uneven but the book gives a clear picture of Hughes.

It is the rare poet whose words enter the culture with the apparent durability of, say, "a dream deferred." Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot's book I've Known Rivers—the titles are phrases from the pen of Langston Hughes, and so is "black like me." To lodge such fragments so broadly and deeply requires not only a gift for poetry but also an unusual affinity with the language of popular speech and song. This gift and this affinity Langston Hughes had, along with an intense if scattered energy that kept him working all his adult life on a variety of projects in prose and verse—essays, columns, librettos, fiction, songs and, most important to him and to most of his readers, poems.

"The Negro Speaks of Rivers," first published in 1921, when Hughes was 19, is still among his best-known poems, though vintage Hughes verse continued to appear; his last volume, The Panther and the Lash, was published shortly after his death in 1967. Dozens of Hughes's poems are in the mode of "Motto," first collected in Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951):

    I play it cool
    And dig all jive.
    That's the reason
    I stay alive.
 
    My motto,
    As I live and learn, is:
 
    Dig And Be Dug
    In Return.

This has the almost anonymous authenticity to which some fine poetry aspires. Its rhythm is memorable and lively. It does what it sets out to do. Many of Hughes's poems display greater ambition, and some of them fulfill it, but he may have been most consistently at his best in short poems embodying brief moments of deeply compassionate wit. Much of the time, his poems moved to blues and jazz rhythms, with which Hughes experimented more rewardingly than any other important poet of this century. Sometimes he would point in some self-conscious way to the technical aspects of a poem, using over emphatic capital letters or marginalia. But when the words and rhythms were allowed merely to do their work, they were often convincing and haunting.

Langston Hughes is one of the essential figures in American literature. His career is much larger than the body of his poetry alone. By his work and example, he has enriched our lives; as Gwendolyn Brooks once put it, he "made us better people." His stature demands a collection like this. It is edited by Arnold Rampersad, the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature at Princeton University, whose two-volume life of Hughes is among the most absorbing and well-written literary biographies of recent years, and David Roessel, who teaches English at Princeton. They say they have attempted to assemble "all the poems of Hughes published in his lifetime." (This statement is followed a few sentences later by the merciful qualification that they "have excluded as juvenilia" Hughes poems written in high school or college.) Along with a useful chronology of Hughes's life and 77 pages of scholarly notes, The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes gathers 860 poems, some 280 of which Hughes published in periodicals but did not choose to include in books.

It should surprise absolutely no one, then, that a great many of these poems are not good. A mere syllable or two might make the difference between the poem nourished by a light touch and the poem stifled under a heavy hand. Hughes's ear for the difference was not always reliable, but most of the time he could recognize extreme cases of ineptitude while assembling a collection. Here is a typical quatrain—the fourth—from "Give Us Our Peace," which Hughes published in The Chicago Defender in 1945, but did not subsequently include in a collection:

     Give us a peace that is not cheaply used,
     A peace that is no clever scheme,
     A people's peace for which men can enthuse,
     A peace that brings reality to our dream.

In sharp contrast, here is the opening quatrain of "Cross," which was published 20 years earlier in the N.A.A.C.P. magazine, The Crisis, and then in the collections The Weary Blues (1926) and Selected Poems (1959):

     My old man's a white old man
     And my old mother's black.
     If ever I cursed my white old man
     I take my curses back.

These two examples demonstrate, among other things, that frequent repetition is as subject to clumsiness and grace as anything else. In the first, "a" and "peace" appear four times each, to tiresome effect. In the shorter second example, "my" and "old" appear four times each without redundancy. But it would be foolish to conclude simply that Hughes sometimes had the good luck to score such direct hits as the opening of "Cross." Hughes was a skilled technician, but he worked quickly and threw himself feverishly into each poem while it was in process. Only later, and not quite dependably, did he come to see whether he had been successful or not. Many fine poets—Wordsworth is a stunning example—have worked this way.

The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes is divided by decades, from the 1920's through the 1960's, with a couple of appendixes: 42 mostly polemical poems, mostly written in the 40's, circulated to newspapers by The Associated Negro Press, and 33 poems for children. Mr. Rampersad and Mr. Roessel have made every effort to arrange the poems chronologically in order of publication, except for those collected in Montage of a Dream Deferred and Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961), which are presented as Hughes arranged them. It would have been extremely cumbersome to preserve the arrangement of poems in other volumes, since some of the poems appear in as many as four collections. The notes make it possible to distinguish between the previously collected and previously uncollected poems.

However, if the integrity of individual collections is of necessity destroyed here, the editors have restored in large measure the feel of the life that gave rise to the poems. It has long been recognized that Hughes believed strongly in the usefulness of poetry as polemic; this collection makes even clearer his willingness to put his name to doggerel, as well as to inspired poetry, for the sake of a cause he believed in. It also helps to clarify some of the pressures to which he reacted at various times; in the 50's, for example, he was careful to omit most of his more radically Communist verse from Selected Poems. It is extremely useful to have those poems here.

Plenty of readers will wish that more of these poems could have been better than they are; yet it seems impossible to wish that Hughes could have been anyone but who he was. From the beginning of his career to the end of it, Hughes spoke out clearly and courageously for racial justice. His range of tone was broad, from loving portrayal of brave people living private lives to heavy-handed but sometimes hilarious daydreams turning Orval Faubus and James O. Eastland into stick figures Mammy Faubus and Mammy Eastland. There was a great deal of anger in between, and pain, but somehow Hughes kept these emotions within the bounds of an amazingly generous heart.

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This section contains 1,207 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Edward Mullen