Prose from Poetry Magazine

On Newly Discovered Langston Hughes Poems

Facing racism every day with the Great Depression looming, Hughes wrote these political poems on the inside covers of a book.

by Arnold Rampersad
Langston Hughes wrote these simple poems* in 1930, as the Great Depression loomed in America. By the end of 1933, in the depths of the crisis, he had composed some of the harshest political verse ever penned by an American. These pieces include "Good Morning Revolution" and "Columbia," but above all, "Goodbye Christ." Here the speaker of the poem ridicules the legend of Jesus in favor of the radical reality of Marx, Lenin, "worker," "peasant," "me." Around 1940, under severe pressure from conservatives, Hughes repudiated "Goodbye Christ" as an unfortunate error of his youth. However, in 1953 he was again forced to condemn this poem when he appeared, by subpoena, before Senator Joseph McCarthy's infamous subcommittee probing allegedly "un-American" activities by some of our leading scholars, scientists, and artists.

At his core, Hughes was a lyric poet entranced by the charms and mysteries of nature. Nevertheless, political protest was a key aspect of his writing virtually from his high-school days, when many of his classmates were the children of Jewish and Catholic immigrants from Europe who taught him the importance of protesting against injustice. A stirring voyage to colonial Africa in 1923, when he was barely twenty-one, only intensified his commitment to protest art.

These discoveries are minor poems, but reflect some of Hughes's abiding concerns and images. For example, in the first poem the words "and be ashamed" echo elements of his popular Whitmanesque poem of 1924, "I, Too, Sing America." In that work, the "darker brother" who is the speaker of the poem is sorry that his white relatives force him to eat in the kitchen "when company comes"; but he eats and grows strong. One day, these whites will be "ashamed" of their conduct and admit that he, too, sings America—he, too, is America. The threat of violence in the ending of the poem that begins "You and your whole race" reflects a molten indignation that Hughes vented consistently over his entire career.

The second poem, which begins "I look at the world," is also cut from Hughes's radical poetic cloth. Again one hears echoes of some of his better-known poems. The line "And this is what I see," followed, as in a sermon-like refrain, by "And this is what I know," is a familiar rhetorical device in his work. Familiar, too, are the conceits of narrow assigned spaces that almost suffocate blacks, "silly" walls that pen them in, and, both ominously and beautifully, "dark eyes in a dark face."

The third poem ("Remember/The days of bondage") is the most American of all. With its references to the Carolinas (in the Jim Crow South) and to Maine (alluding probably to insincere Northern liberalism), this is the most defiant piece. Here, as elsewhere, Hughes uses daubs of vivid paint on a small canvas to create his desired effects. Religion is in play here. "Days of bondage" hints at the Egyptian captivity and the desire of the Hebrews to be free. Urging blacks to "Go to the highest hill," the speaker of the poem invites them to see themselves as, in a way, Christ tempted by Satan—but also reminds them and us of their suffering and possible crucifixion. Calling whites thieves and liars, this is the bitterest poem.

The brevity of these poems conserves their power and, in doing so, prevents them from becoming boring. Again, they are simple—but we must remember that Hughes lived as an artist by the idea that simplicity at its best is or can be complex. Surely these three poems do not widely expand our knowledge of Hughes or his art. However, they remind us poignantly, in their lancing grace, of the qualities that made him the poet laureate of his people and an American master.

Hughes saw such poems both as "mere" propaganda and also as necessary acts of the committed poet. As a black writer facing racism on a daily basis, he had a remarkably precise sense of scale, as well as an inspired knowledge of the words and rhythms of speech that would best convey his messages to blacks and whites alike. The truth is that we cannot have too many poems by Langston Hughes, no matter how modest they seem to be on the surface.



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*These poems were written in pencil on the endpapers of Langston Hughes’s edition of An Anthology of Revolutionary Poetry (Active Press, 1929). They were discovered by Penny Welbourne, a rare book cataloger at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, where the Hughes Papers are housed. This is their first known publication. Please visit poetryfoundation.org to see a facsimile slideshow of the original.


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Originally Published: December 30, 2008

COMMENTS (6)

On January 6, 2009 at 3:54am Nathan Stanton wrote:
Langston Hughes stands as a reminder of the first thing I ever memorized,

A poem called "Landlord, Landlord", for an oratorical contest.

He is the entrance for me into art and a titan of luminous magnitude. He says what no one wants to inside and outside

of oppressed areas. In the process he enlightens us with a grace and clarity that is legendary. His newly discovered works are but gems in a crown of achievement that shall endure for generations.

On January 10, 2009 at 12:20pm Edward Mycue wrote:
Hughes is rarely taught as also gay

:

i've been thinking (now don't get all quaggy-faced) – an open letter to twofriends who have come to my defense against each other: i try to make peace

i've liked both of you a lot (though lack of proof is not proof of lack)for decades. i am a fag and it's not a drag and as a lothario always had far to go (but the gods were kind and gave me a dirty mind albeit not at an olympic competition level). (so much of my life has been in parentheses) eons ago there used to be signs at london underground entrances saying stamp out fags (that surprised rick a lot in 1975 as we came up to the islington station and he saw those signs). you are both wellmeaning and wonderful and might become the best of friends even though you are both knights in shining armor and quick to help the underdog. there no friendlyfire but there are many fairy tales and horror tales and so much mythology that comes from similes (this is like THAT and therefore that). we have wars out there and so many fires are flaring i worry abt us charging toward each other. and yes i have to agree i noticed that "fag" comment but passed by as i placed it our time past and chalked it up to some of the problems of the flow-poem made in the moment and not easily responsive to meditation or mediation. (then i moved the shard into the “save” posts.) thank you both for being there for me and caring about our shared humanity and engaging in nonlethal discussions because if my friends take eachother out, where am i then?! i try to be more propeace than antiwar. what the difference is is the direction of the effort. in a few months i'll be 72 and my timeenergy wanes and i keep losing my marbles. i couldn't remember today my password to my atm card and so had to give up withdrawing a q40. (i have done this in the past --pretty far past--and it may be high blood pressure.anyway don't go swordfighting over my grave.) "QUE DRAMA!" elena de los santos mycue, my brother david's wife would pronounce to my siblings who are so gloriously volatile. then she would hug the ones deep into engagement saying "TAN JULA." (or maybe it was "CHULA") that seemed to say "i love you you wild things; you care about what matters; but don't hurt each other."

I was sent to technical high school because (and since we, a family w/7 children, were poor) it was felt i lacked the intellectual discipline to become a self-supporting adult, that i was a dreamy boy. i now feel that if i'd have gone on that 'shops' way i could have been somebody who could have a useful skill. i was identified by the math and english teachers, who were also the football coaches, to go into the thin college preparation class in my big n.r.crozier technical high school. and though i kept at the shops, my way swept me perhaps past my abilities (even while experiencing the schooling of hard knocks). they all must have sensed i was odd as my parents and teachers each chose different paths for me to take in life to save myself. in dallas, texas in 1951 i sensed enough to hide my attraction for other lads (easy enough as i loved the girls and dancing and dating too) and poems. i was used to being different and it seemed everybody was a bit odd too--as my greatgrandmother the quaker influenced jane kennedy-carson delehant would say endlessly that everybody's odd, that everyone has his way, that everyone's way does, that is everyone but thee and me, dearie, AND then SHE'D WINK! and add: “and sometimes i wonder about thee”.

if you don't mind i have a quote from vilhelm ekelund (translated by lennart bruce, poet and friend of my heart) in 1970's selection AGENDA (cloud marauder press, 1976):

"When the young Wesley (1703-1791,founder of a religious sect) ransacked his heart, he found that his whole Christianity was but a 'cute summer religion.' For winter and storm and death it was useless.

"That's how things stand with our highly praised culture, our urge of 'self-refinement,' our 'love of truth;' it's all a slight summer philosophy. A gust of wind is all that's needed to bring down the whole house of cards--a glance out of the eye of someone on the street, a smile which might occur suspect to you, a word whispered behind your back...not to speak of storm and death. Our philosophy does in no way suffice even to damper the pains of plain ordinary irritability and irascibility. It's excellent for the after dinner drink and the cigar, sure!

"It's always a question of need! Changing the old proverb around one might say: a book that stands up in need is a book indeed. Yes, one might think it over more than once, before one seriously wished to be placed in such situations and such moods of life, where a book becomes its full reality, becomes something that enters the bloodstream. One may find it desirable or not, still the true situation is, that any other way of reading is like when a child plays with a knife."

(of Ekelund, lennart bruce wrote : "Gradually his style grew more austere until finally, in search of 'the great poem,' he denounced lyrics as the art of the intellectually impotent and condemned his earlier work as too sentimental and superficial. In 1907 he published his last poem." Laura Riding--my first master, as a late teenager--renounced poetry as the lying word in 1937, the year i was born. Ekelund lived until 1949 and Riding until her early 90's.)

I TOLD YOU I WAS LOSING MY MARBLES. i start and then i drift. like tallulah bankhead who was pure as the driven snow but drifted--or was it as the driven slush. Anyway it's never a lush life in a plush room as you two heros know.

ever manic the mantic?, edward mycue (for Michael Waggener interested onlooker)

6 January 2009

On January 10, 2009 at 12:23pm Edward Mycue wrote:
RING-NECKED

my youth

was a

naked boy

on a sweet

fast horse

and we rode

–we were one–

in cool days

and nights

until i

was old.

that was tomorrow.

rode snapping a

towel airward.

tomorrow

is yesterday:

an old man

still a boy.

edward mycue 9 January 2009

On January 21, 2009 at 9:33pm John Fonner wrote:
Seventy-eight years later, "I Look At the World" is a poignant bookend to yesterday's inauguration of President Barack Obama.

On May 28, 2009 at 2:32am uma wrote:
this is very helpful for my project

On February 3, 2014 at 2:33am Bob McNeil wrote:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MinqWt6iG6g&list=UUVHe7cuOA-FSo3GuEpt1tDQ&feature=share

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This prose originally appeared in the January 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

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Biography

Arnold Rampersad is the author of the two-volume The Life of Langston Hughes (Oxford University Press, 1986 and 1988) and Ralph Ellison: A Biography (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007). He is also editor of The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (Alfred A Knopf, 1994).

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