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.

There is Light Somewhere

Despite what you might believe, you must understand that no matter how low you may be feeling or how much you might be hurting, in the grand scheme of things, you don’t have it so bad.  There is always going to be someone who is worse off than you are.  There will always be someone who is hurting more–suffering more–than you are or ever will.  You must put things in perspective if you are to survive.  This is essential, as I’m learning firsthand.

So cheer up, because it’s not the end of the world.  Not yet, anyway.  Just when you think you’re ready to walk the streets wearing a sandwich board declaring “The End is Nigh” in bold red letters, know that there is light somewhere.  Whether it be a smile from a gorgeous girl or a kind word from a close friend who cares, there is light somewhere.  Look for it.  Know it.  Embrace it.

There was a distinguished professor, now deceased, at the University of Arkansas by the name of Dr. Leo Van Scyoc (pronounced “Van Syke”).  He was a mentor to my parents, and in all likelihood he was the catalyst for my being named “Hotspur” since he was the one who taught Shakespeare to the both of them (his forearms were as big as Popeye’s, as he was notorious for teaching straight from his edition of The Riverside Shakespeare, holding the humongous tome in one arm as he taught).  Dr. Van Scyoc was fond of giving the following advice:  “One must retain one’s sense of humor.”  I’ve found myself heeding that bit of wisdom more and more in recent years, and I think it just might be the single best piece of advice I’ve ever received.

Speaking of laughing, I’ll leave you tonight with a poem from that brilliant dirty old man, Charles Bukowski.  I get so pissed sometimes when people discount Bukowski and write him off as a degenerate, because when he wasn’t busy drinking and gambling and whoring and writing poems and stories that served to reinforce his image as a degenerate, he was crafting some of the most eloquent and accessible poetry ever written about the human heart.  This is one of those poems.

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

The Laughing Heart

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.

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

And if you’re not much for readin’ poetry, then feel free to give a listen to it being read by Tom Waits, the patron saint of coolness.