Friday, October 8, 2010

I Dream of Rivers

Poet, novelist, playwright, short story writer, essayist and columnist, Langston Hughes, was unfortunately for me, a long time coming to my attention. The name was familiar, as was his great stature as a spokesman for the African American, but I did not begin reading his work until six or seven years ago. It didn’t take me long to realize that Langston Hughes was a spokesman for much, much more than the people of his own race.

Born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902, Langston Hughes spent a year at Columbia University before hopping a tramp steamer for West Africa and Europe. As a crew member on the ship, he traveled up and down the coast of West Africa for six months, and then settled in Paris for some time. Back in the US, and after earning a degree at Lincoln University, he moved to Harlem in New York City where he remained until his death in 1967.

He lived in New York during the period of years known as the Harlem Renaissance, spread across the decade of the 1920s. This was a time and a movement that ultimately redefined how America and the world viewed African Americans. In short, the Harlem Renaissance created a new black identity. One concern of the poet at this time was racial pride and the creation of what could be called purely African American poetry. Jazz was an important part of Harlem culture during those years and Hughes sought to adapt that musical genre to his poetry. He used the syncopated rhythms and repetitive phrases common to blues music and jazz. From his work and the work of other black writers of the time emerged what came to called jazz poetry.

The following five poems are not necessarily what one might call classic examples of jazz poetry, but rather a representative selection of poems over a span of twenty-six years in the work of Langston Hughes.

I Dream a World

I dream a world where man

No other man will scorn,

Where love will bless the earth

And peace its paths adorn.

I dream a world where all

Will know sweet freedom’s way,

Where greed no longer saps the soul

Nor avarice blights our day.

A world I dream where black or white,

Whatever race you be,

Will share the bounties of the earth

And every man is free,

Where wretchedness will hang its head

And joy, like a pearl,

Attends the needs of all mankind—

Of such I dream, my world!

(February 1945)


Oh, fields of wonder

Out of which

Stars are born,

And moon and sun

And me as well,

Like stroke

Of lightning

In the night

Some mark

To make

Some word

To tell.

(May 1947)

Blues on a Box

Play your guitar, boy,

Till yesterday’s

Black cat

Runs out tomorrow’s

Back door

And evil old

Hard luck

Ain’t no more!

(February 1947)

Feet o’ Jesus

At the feet o’ Jesus,

Sorrow like a sea.

Lordy, let yo’ mercy

Come driftin’ down on me.

At the feet o’ Jesus

At yo’ feet I stand.

O, ma little Jesus,

Please reach out yo’ hand.

(October 1926)

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I danced in the Nile when I was old
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

(June 1921)

Five poems from: The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America