John Pistelli

writer

Langston Hughes, The Weary Blues

The Weary BluesThe Weary Blues by Langston Hughes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Following on from my review of Crane’s White Buildings—which begins with some general reflections on the reading of poetry—I am trying to pay more attention to modern poets. I especially appreciate books like this one: reprints of important collections as they appeared in the poet’s lifetime. I would prefer to read such books than either intimidatingly massive “collected poems” or worryingly partial “selected poems.” It seems strange to me to ignore the importance of the collection, the slim volume, its slimness a signifier of the ruthless concision demanded by verse, in the modern lyric poet’s art. So I hope to see more books like this re-issue of The Weary Blues.

This collection is divided into seven sections, each of which organizes poems of a certain tone or on a certain topic. “The Weary Blues” gathers poems of jazz in the city, “Dream Variations” offer more romantic poems of nature and emotion, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” collects poems on the theme of African-American struggle, “Black Pierrot” gathers poems of love and desire, “Water-Front Streets” features poems of sea and travel, “Shadows in the Sun” gives us poems of death and despair along with more travel, and “Our Land” returns to the political themes of black culture and its fate in racist America. At the head of the volume is a proem announcing the poet’s own subject postion—”I am a Negro: / Black as the night is black, / Black like the depths of my Africa”—while its famous “Epilogue” replies to Whitman: “I, too, sing America.”

Hughes, like Crane, was a prodigy, and this volume was published in 1926, when its author was 24. The volume’s original introduction, by the controversial white impresario of the Harlem Renaissance, Carl Van Vechten, emphasizes the poet’s well-traveled life, ranging from his Missouri birthplace to Mexico, Italy, and West Africa. Van Vechten notes his wish that Hughes would set down his travels in “a fascinating picaresque romance.” And indeed what strikes one immediately about this collection is its internationalism of form and content. According to poets.org, Hughes listed his influences as Walt Whitman, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Carl Sandburg. Whitman’s influence is visible in Hughes’s freedom of desire and poetic line, Sandburg’s in Hughes’s attention to labor and the modern city, Dunbar’s in Hughes’s commitment to brining black vernacular to modern verse. But Kevin Young’s introduction to this reprint adds another element by referring to “the so-called American haiku” of Hughes’s oeuvre, which points us toward the japonisme of Imagism and Symbolism, displayed by a number of the poems here, less famous perhaps because less overtly political or sociological poems:

Caribbean Sunset

God having a hemorrhage,
Blood coughed across the sky,
Staining the dark sea red,
That is sunset in the Caribbean.

The simple metaphors, as in Pound’s advocacy for the ideogram, print an indelible picture, complete with emotional coloring, on the mind in so many of the shorter and less Whitmanian or else ballad-like poems:

Troubled Woman

She stands
In the quiet darkness,
This troubled woman,
Bowed by
Weariness and pain,
Like an
Autumn flower,
In the frozen rain.
Like a
Wind-blown autumn flower
That never lifts its head
Again.

But the seemingly non-political character of such delicate lyrics is perhaps deceptive. As in the volume’s most famous poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the point is to find a set of aesthetic coordinates outside of Northern Europe and its North American emanation, a civilization that is, as Hughes complains, “So hard, / So strong, / So cold,” and which he elsewhere characterizes as a condition of being “Caged in the circus of civilization.” Thus the rivers of which the Negro speaks—Euphrates, Congo, Nile, Mississipi—are the rivers along which civilizations of color have grown, however subjected to the brutalities of history. So the poems’ aesthetics, informed by Japan and Mexico, Italy and France, West Africa and Cuba, chart a new culture and a new sexuality, one implied by the music of the jazz clubs, sexually antinomian and anti-Christian:

Jazzonia

Oh, silver tree!
Oh, shining rivers of the soul!

In a Harlem cabaret
Six long-headed jazzers play.
A dancing girl whose eyes are bold
Lifts high a dress of silken gold.

Were Eve’s eyes
In the first garden
Just a bit too bold?
Was Cleopatra gorgeous
In a gown of gold?

Oh, silver tree!
Oh, shining rivers of the soul!

In a whirling cabaret
Six long-headed jazzers play.

And yet Hughes as poet and intellectual is aware of the privileged ironies of his own position, as in this carefully ironic poem:

Young Singer

One who sings “chansons vulgaires”
In a Harlem cellar
Where the jazz-band plays
From dark to dawn
Would not understand
Should you tell her
That she is like a nymph
For some wild faun.

The singer may not understand, but the poet does, as does the reader (Hughes uses the nymph trope without irony in a later poem called “Joy”). And it is this irony—that the populist international aesthetic sought by the poet is lived but not known by the populace—that identifies these original and masterful poems with the contradictions of modernism: its revolutionary aspirations and its elite address, its vulgar songs that one must be so refined to appreciate.

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This entry was posted on 30 May 2015 by in book reviews, literary criticism, literature, poetry and tagged , , , .
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