This essay was written on November 19th, 2018 for ENGL 323: Harlem Renaissance, taught by Dr. Deidre Egan-Ryan. This essay compares how the rhythms in blues music are seen within Langston Hughes’ poetry. Hughes’ jazzy use of lyricism and selective choices of style allow for his poetry to sound like a blues song.
Where Blues and Poetry Go Hand-In-Hand
Langston Hughes is one of the most influential African American writers from the Harlem Renaissance. The combination of Hughes’ unique styles of lyricism, his stylistic choices, and his tributes to the continent of Africa, help to contribute to the celebration of African American culture in Harlem. These aspects of Hughes’ poetry are also understood though Yusef Komunyakaa’s essay, “Langston Hughes + Poetry = The Blues.” In his essay, Komunyakaa contributes to this thesis by analyzing Hughes’ stylistically and how these choices have influenced his audience. In evaluating these poetic elements Hughes chose, in combination with Komunyakaa’s essay, it can be understood why Langston Hughes is still known as one of the most significant writers from the Harlem Renaissance.
Langston Hughes’ lyricism was written intentionally for his poetry to sound similar to the rhythm heard in blues music. Blues music became popular throughout Harlem during the same time that Hughes was writing. The great migration of black people from the south to Harlem was extremely influential across all art forms. The combination of this genre along with the styles of blues music are seen within the lyrics of Hughes’ poetry. “Dream Boogie,” found within Montage of a Dream Deferred,
Good morning, daddy!
Ain’t you heard
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred?
You’ll hear their feet
Beating out and beating out a– (Hughes 221)
Hughes made these stanzas to be composed of short, choppy lines to mimic the similar sounds heard in blues music. The shorter lines set up a rhythm that follows throughout the poem while the lack of a rhyme scheme mimics the improvisation that often comes within the blues songs. Komunyakaa also supports the idea that Hughes’ choice in style is sought to imitate the sounds heard in blues. “Hughes also incorporates a jagged lyricism and modulation into his poetry by using short lines– a modern feeling that depends on vertical movement that sidesteps contemplation but invites action/motion” (Komunyakaa 1141). Komunyakaa sees Hughes’ shorter, broken lines to represent the movement and sound in blues. Similarly to the genre, the rhythm of the poem is catchy while the words force you to think about the meaning behind them. Hughes’ choice to resemble the rhythmic and stylistic patterns of blues has allowed for his work to become influential for black people living in Harlem at the time.
Similarly to Hughes’ lyricism, his stylistic choices also intentionally resemble those of blues music in Harlem. As previously mentioned, a common stylistic element in blues music is to have the sounds and rhythm that are catchy and appealing but the words are much darker and cause listeners to contemplate the true meaning behind the song. This is something that Hughes does throughout his poetry. Komunyakaa explains that “Art has to have tension. And it is the simultaneous laughter and crying that create tension in Hughes’ blues poetry” (Komunyakaa 1140). This artistic style is seen within blues and also within Hughes’ poem, “Jam Session.”
out on bail
detained in jail
for sprinkling salt
on a dreamer’s tail
pop-a-da (Hughes 246)
This poem effectively shows how the sounds of this poem appeal to our ears but has a much deeper connotation. This poem audibly sounds like a blues song when read out loud. It is up beat in tempo, especially with the added scat in between stanzas. When analyzing the actual words in the poem, it can be found that there is a much deeper, darker meaning than the rhythm would suggest. This theme within blues music and in Hughes’ poetry often times allude to actual life in Harlem. From the outside, Harlem seemed like an up-beat, happening place but in actuality, it was very hard for many African Americans to be successful. Hughes’ poetry was extremely influential for black people living in Harlem at the time.
A large part of the reason why Hughes’ poetry was remarkably influential in Harlem was because of his recurring tributes to the continent of Africa. Hughes’ poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” talks about African heritage while also exposing the tensions that come with race in America.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
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 (Hughes 4).
Hughes is retelling the developmental history of Africa while also explaining some of the racial issues in America while painting an image of different rivers within this stanza. The first three lines take place in Africa at the Euphrates, Congo, and Nile rivers. He tributes his poem to these three rivers as they each are significant in understanding the developmental history of Africa. He then transitions to the Mississippi river and alludes to Abraham Lincoln’s visit to New Orleans to emphasize the horrors that come with slavery and discrimination of race in America. Komunyakaa explains that although Hughes pays many tributes to Africa within his work, he still looks to be proud of where you have grown up. Being from Missouri, “an American-ness had been at the center of Hughes’ work, which is one of the reasons he has endured” (Komunyakaa 1140). He points out that because Hughes has balanced showing pride for his African roots while also being an American. Because of this, he has instilled a sense of pride in his readers because he emphasizes the importance of being proud of who you are, where you came from, and how far you have come. This idea ties back to blues rhythm and Hughes’ lyricism. The pride that comes with being an African American is seen through the up-beat, catchy tempos within blues and Hughes’ poetry. The struggle and the journey taken to get there is shown through the words and messages being sent.
Hughes, along with many Harlem Renaissance artists, have influenced the concept of black identity. This can be seen through the art during this time how, as a mode, it is a beautiful form that brings joy and enjoyment to its audience. However, at the same time it focuses on the many difficulties of life as an African American. In order to gain a true world view during the time of the Harlem Renaissance, it is important to understand this concept and see both sides of these art forms. The different sides can be the combination of beauty and darkness, happiness and difficulty, or life and death. All sides need to be acknowledged and understood to genuinely understand the meaning behind the artist’s work.
As one of the most influential African American writers during the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes’ work helps to celebrate and appreciate African American identity. He has written his poetry in a way that uniquely mimics many stylistic elements of blues music. Through proper analysis and in conjunction with Komunyakaa’s essay, it can be understood that Hughes’ work beautifully depicts the double effect that comes with Harlem Renaissance art. Because Hughes’ work is so influential to black identity and proud of where African American’s originate from, his work is still influential and admired today.
Komunyakaa, Yusef. “Langston Hughes + Poetry = The Blues.” Callaloo, vol. 25, no. 4, 2002, pp. 1140–1143. JSTOR, JSTOR.