Happy Birthday, Langston

What better way to kick-off Black History Month than by celebrating what would have been the 113th birthday of Langston Hughes.  Google has even dedicated today’s doodle to Hughes with an animation of his poem, “I Dream a World.”  If I could only use one word to describe the man, it would be “cool.”  Actually, “cool” doesn’t have quite enough “o”s; it should be “coooool.”  I mean, just check out this cat’s outfit in the picture the Post Office chose for his commemorative stamp.  Coooool.

langstonhughesBack when postage was 34 cents, this was the only stamp I used.

Langston Hughes was one of my earliest loves in poetry, probably because his work was so honest and accessible.  It was cool and unpretentious–the antithesis of the kind of writing that has given poetry a pejorative connotation among young people in recent years.  John Keats wrote arguably some of the greatest poems in the English language, but if you hand an eleven-year-old boy a book of Keats, not only will he hate you, but it’s also likely that he will think he hates poetry as well.  Give that same boy some Langston Hughes, and he’s got a fightin’ chance.

Another reason I enjoyed Hughes’ poetry might have been because I listened almost exclusively to classic soul music at that age, and Hughes’ terse and powerful verse carried the same rhythm and sincerity found in the music I loved.  It also reflected the same themes, whether that be striving for social justice or simply telling it like it is about the human condition.  I know I’m opening myself up to criticism here from the literati who might be quick to assert that Hughes’ style was jazz, not soul, and I can’t rightly argue with them; rather, I’d simply like to point out that to me, jazz can be all over the place–long-winded, intricate and improvisational (three things I’ve never identified with Hughes’ writing)–while soul is short, simple and structured (three things I’ve always identified with Hughes’ writing).  And if we’re going to be spliting hairs here, his poetry oftentimes came closer to resembling the blues than either jazz or soul.  Take for instance the following poem, “Too Blue,” which I once cut out of a middle school textbook and taped to my wall (back when I thought it was hip to be melancholic):

*****************

TOO BLUE

I got those sad old weary blues.
I don’t know where to turn.
I don’t know where to go.
Nobody cares about you
When you sink so low.

What shall I do?
What shall I say?
Shall I take a gun 
And put myself away?

I wonder if
One bullet would do?
As hard as my head is,
It would probably take two.

But I ain’t got 
Neither bullet nor gun–
And I’m too blue
To look for one.

*****************

If that’s not the blues, then I don’t know what the hell is.

The library where I work chose to honor Hughes several years ago during National Poetry Month by creating a “human poem” out of one of his more recognized poems, “Dreams.”  We were each asked to wear a black shirt and tape a word from the poem to our shirt.  (I was quick to select the word “broken”–don’t ask me why.)  When we didn’t have enough black-shirted participants to fill out the poem, extra bodies in all colors of clothing were recruited to help finish our half-assed attempt at a human poem.

Here’s what our motley crew looked like:

Human Poem 001

You can click the picture for a larger image, but even then you’d still have a helluva time trying to read the poem, so I’ll type it out here for you:

*****************

DREAMS

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

*****************

One word:  coooool.

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