I've Known Rivers
Curtis Fox: To my great shame I’ve memorized only a handful of poems in my life. Of the bunch, here’s one that I love to trot out at the bar when I’ve probably had one too many. It goes something like this: “Birthing is hard and dying is mean, so get yourself a little loving in between”. This is The Poetry Foundation Podcast for the week of February 19th, 2007. I’m Curtis Fox. On this week’s podcast, an audio documentary of Langston Hughes. Sometime back in the 1850s, Walt Whitman wrote a short poem called “I Hear America Singing”. Whitman hears the carpenter singing, the mason singing, the woodcutter singing, her daughter singing, “each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else”. Whitman usually tried really hard to include everyone in his poetry, but in this poem he left someone out as another seminal American poet noted in the next century.
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
Curtis Fox: Langston Hughes grew strong as a poet by celebrating African American life and culture in the era of Jim Crow. His first book of poems, The Weary Blues, was a highlight of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. During his lifetime, Hughes published 860 poems, but he also wrote plays, short stories, newspaper columns, essays and two autobiographies. He remains one of the most popular American poets ever. Lex Gillespie produced this short documentary about Langston Hughes, his perennial appeal and his legacy. It begins with a reading Hughes gave in 1958 in Berkley California.
Langston Hughes: This one’s called Merry-Go Round. This poem presents the race problem very simply through the eyes of a child. I imagine in my own mind a little girl of maybe 7 or 8 years old. This little colored girl goes to a carnival. She sees the Merry-Go Round, she wants to ride. This is what she says:
Where is the Jim Crow section
On this merry-go-round,
Mister, cause I want to ride?
Down South where I come from
White and colored
Can't sit side by side.
Elizabeth Alexander: For Hughes in his view of poetry as he practiced it, it was the voice of the tribe, the voice of the people. My name is Elizabeth Alexander, I’m a poet and professor of African Studies at Yale University. I think of him as a still-waters run deep sort of poet. The poems are short, the language is clear and relatively simple, you find words that most people would apprehend. He’s not interested in the effect of fancy words unto themselves. I think it’s important that he’s a master of the short lyric. But I think that what you have in those beautiful short comprehensible lyrics is something that ultimately gives way to great meditation. They are poems you can live with and think about over time.
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.
My own poems are very much down to earth. They’re poems that have grown right out of my own life, out of places I’ve been, things I’ve done, people I’ve known, the way I think and feel about things.
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.
Elizabeth Alexander: I think he’s been canonized a little bit as a folksy home-spun poet, and as a part of Harlem. I think that’s perfectly appropriate but that doesn’t get to Hughes as internationalist. Yes, he was from the mid-west, born in Kansas. But his traveling began in his late teens and early 20s. He went not only to Europe but also to African and the Middle East. He went all over. He went the way he could go, which is on ships. He would go on ships and wash dishes and make enough money to stop somewhere, and then get on the next boat when he needed to make some money.
Langston Hughes: One of my dreams have always been to see Africa, the motherland of the Negro people. That trip greatly influenced my thinking, my work, my writing. For one thing I acquired a new pride in my own racial background. I wrote a number of poems. I will read you the shortest one of them, a poem called “My People”.
The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.
Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.
Keith Leonard: This is Keith Leonard, associate professor of Literature at American University in D.C., scholar of 20th African American poetry. Travel as an important part of Langston Hughe’s inspiration. He chronicled many of these travels in his autobiography The Big Sea, always exploring, finding other ways of understanding himself in the world. When he finally landed in Paris he heard the music of jazz again. That was the beginning of a new era in his poetry.
Langston Hughes: I got to Paris very early one morning in the middle of February with only 7 dollars left. I finally found a job as a dishwasher. I worked in the Grand View in the Rupi Gall for some 7 months, and every night washing pots and pans back in the kitchen, I used to hear the jazz band playing, a very good Negro jazz band from New York. The beat of their syncopated music got into my blood, and I began to try to reproduce it in poetry. It was my so-called jazz poems, at least what the critics called them, that began my professional literary career because these are the first poems that I sold.
Keith Leonard: When it comes to music, Hughes I think has been the most brilliant innovator in all of American poetry as far as working on the connections between music and the poetic form. When Hughes began writing, jazz and the blues were new forms. He was very taken by those musical forms, especially the blues. He brought aspects of those forms and those musics into poetic structure. That is profoundly innovative. He didn’t just reference jazz and the blues, he didn’t just write poems about blues singers or jazz players, he really digested what those forms could bring to written form.
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway. . . .
He did a lazy sway. . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
Keith Leonard: Among the literary influences that Langston Hughes valued most highly were Carl Sandberg and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. In many ways, they were valued for similar reasons, both poets turned to the ordinary man for inspiration. Paul Lawrence Dunbar used the folk culture and the folk voice of African Americans, usually from the South, during slavery and just after. He was one of the first African American poets to take the African American dialect seriously, and he used that language to celebrate the cultural forms, the songs, the religion, the spirituality by which African Americans endured those tough times. Carl Sandberg also celebrated the common man, but the working man of all races. He introduced a kind of leftist politics to this folk cultural emphasis, and Langston Hughes does a remarkable job in his poetry of combining these two sensibilities.
Langston Hughes: Some critics have called me a socialist poet, and I think I am. Some have called me a documentary poet, and some have called me a propaganda poet. When they used that word they didn’t mean it very nicely usually. But anyway, I was meant to be all three, it doesn’t really seem to make much difference to me what one is called anyway. Certainly much of my poetry is social and much of it is a special pleading for the cause of the Negro achieving all the rights that other Americans had.
Keith Leonard: One of Langston Hughe’s most famous poems is the 1951 poem “Harlem”, or as it’s better known, the dream deferred poem. That poem seems to have tapped into something essential about understanding and envisioning equality for African Americans.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Keith Leonard: It has had such an influence that for example, in Lorraine Hansberry’s famous play A Raisin In The Sun, it is the entire epigraph to that play. And when we think about how that play is about being able to have a house, a home of one’s own, being able to live in a neighborhood one wants to, and all the forces arrayed against Black people achieving that, the dream deferred is a perfect place for that. And it’s also a wonderful way to think about Hughes anticipating Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have A Dream Speech”.
Martin Luther King: I have a dream. My four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character.
Elizabeth Alexander: When I was growing up, I was not taught African American literature in school. I think that’s true of many people who have gone to school in the United States. Langston was a home poet, someone who I always heard about and heard quoted at home. He was a celebrity actually. And it’s nice to think that people in flashier professions that a poet could be a celebrity in a way I’m sure he was in many African American homes. By the way, I should say his work is much more widely taught now.
Keith Leonard: One of the contributions or legacies of Langston Hughes’ poetry is the validation and expansion of the idea of an American common man. Poets like Gwendolyn Brooks claim that she believed she could write about the common man when she read Hughes’ Weary Blues, and she looked out the window in her Chicago building and began writing what she saw there. Jack Kerouac became interested in writing jazz poetry and diversified his own sense of what the common man could contribute to the art. Many of the Beat poets in fact were heavily influenced by Langston Hughes, and even some of the Black Arts Movement poets, the Black nationalist poets of the late 1960s who wanted a radical political aesthetic for poetry saw in Langston Hughes a model. So from Langston Hughes to the contemporary day, there’s a long strain of focusing on the common man. Langston Hughes started much of that.
Elizabeth Alexander: He was always an example to me of someone who had made a life as a poet. He never had a job outside of being a writer and doing the gigs that came along with being a writer. He never had any money. He was always scrambling, always looking for the next gig. He was often discouraged, but he also kept plugging along and stayed productive. I think very importantly until the end of his life he stayed innovative. The poem’s he’s writing at the end of his life are nothing like the poems that brought him fame and reward. He is a questing poet.
Langston Hughes: This final poem tries to say that we’re all going to be Americans together tomorrow.
We have tomorrow
Bright before us
Like a flame.
A night-gone thing,
A sun-down name.
Broad arch above the road we came.
We march, Americans together.
Curtis Fox: Langston Hughes, a decade before his death in 1967 at the age of 65. Our documentary was produced by Lex Gillespie, and edited and mixed by Sejarah Muhammad. Thanks to Smithsonian Archives Recordings for the audio of Langston Hughes reading I, Too Sing America, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, The Weary Blues, all of which come from the CD “The Voice of Langston Hughes”. Thanks also to the Pacifica Radio archives for permission to use extended excerpts of their 1958 recording of Hughes speaking and reading to an audience in Berkley California. In the piece, we heard Keith Leonard, professor of American Literature at American University, and from poet Elizabeth Alexander who teaches at Yale. You can check out an article by Elizabeth Alexander about Langston Hughes and his legacy on our website, poetryfoundation.org. Let us know what you think of this program where our motto is:
You should never explain a poem but it always helps none the less
Curtis Fox; Email us at email@example.com. Thanks to everybody for writing in and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can. The theme music used in this program comes the Claudia Quintet. For the Poetry Foundation Podcast, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.