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Research paper topic: Langston Hughes: A Poet Supreme - 1197 words
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Langston Hughes: A Poet Supreme Langston Hughes: A Poet Supreme Black poetry is poetry that (1) is grounded in the black experience; (2) utilizes black music as a structural or emulative model; and (3) consciously transforms the prevailing standards of poetry through and inconoclastic and innovative use of language. No poet better carries the mantle of model and innovator the Langston Hughes, the prolific Duke Ellington of black poetry. Hughes's output alone is staggering. During his lifetime, he published over eight hundred poems. Moreover, he single-handedly defined blues poetry and is arguably the first major jazz poet. Early in his career he realized the importance of reading his poetry to receptive audiences.
When Alain Locke arranged a poetry reading by Hughes before the Playwriter's Circle in 1972 in Washington, a blues pianist accompanied him, bringing Hughes the artist and blues music one step closer together, even though Hughes felt that the piano player was 'too polished.' He suggested to his Knopf editor that they ought to get 'a regular Lenox Avenue blues boy' to accompany him at his reading in New York. In the fifties Hughes was a major voice in the movement of recording with jazz accompaniment. Although I have neither the space, inclination, or ability to give a close textual reading of Hughes's poetry and although a large body of critical work already exists, I would like to focus on one piece by Hughes to evidence my case for his stature. That piece is the multipart, book-lenght poem Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951). In Montage, which Hughes described in a letter to Arna Bontemps as what you might call a precedent shattering opus-also could be known as a tour de force, Hughes addresses a number of critical problems facing black poetry: (1) how to affect a modern sensibility and at the same time maintain a grounding in the folk culture; (2) how to achieve the textual representation of the music, especially in terms of improvisation and variation of tone and timbre; and (3) how to use the vernacle without resorting to dialect.
Hughes realized that is was impossible to do what he wanted to do in one piece, so he composed a series of short poems that play effect off eachother. Western literacy thought values the long form, the novel in particular, as a statement of intellectual acheivement and implicity devalues short forms. For this reason a collection of short stories rarely recieves equal critical attention as does a novel by the same author. In order to make the long form stand out, the author is expected to demonstrate complexity of plot and character developement. But these and related concerns are simply a culturally biased valuation of a specific set of literacy devices, often at the expense of other devices (many of which center on the sounding of poetry on the page). In a very important sence, modern American poetry was moving toward painting, that is, a composition of words placed on a page, and away from music, that is, an articulation of words that have been both sense (meaning) and sound (emotion).
Hughes clearly close to emphasize black music, which increasingly meant dealing with improvisation. The improvisation is implied in that certain themes, rhymes and rhythmic patterns, and recurring images ebb and flow throughout Montage- here spelled out in detail, there hinted at, and in another instance turned on their head. The above-quoated letter indicated that Hughes was conscious of what he was doing, and it is this self-consciousness that marks this as a modern poem. Indeed, Montage is almost postmodern in its mosaic of voices and attitude contained in one piece. Just as jazz simultaneously stresses the collective and the individual, Hughes component poems are each individual statements, but they are also part of a larger unit(y).
Significantly, Hughes as an individual is de-emphasized in the work, even as various individual members of the community speak and are spoken about. In other words, Hughes becomes a medium, a sensitive and subtle medium, but a medium nonetheless. In a seemingly simple form, Hughes serves as a sounding board for the articulation of people who are usually voiceless. The work's modernity is the self-reflective nature of all the voiced speaking, and in speaking, coming to consciouness of themselves and their environment. Time and time again we hear voices self-consciously grappling with their Harlem realities, which include an international awareness of African American, West Indian, and African bonding. In the African American context modernity specifically refers to the post-Reconstruction, nothern-oriented urbanization of African American life.
No presixties black poet was more complete in expressing the black urban viewpoint than Hughes. The ease with which Hughes voices the various personalities and points of view belies both complexity and progressiveness of his achievement. Because of the brevity of the poems, Hughes's points are often made in passing and require reflection in order to appreciate just how many short poems that make up the Montage series. This poem perfectly illustrates Hughes's musical use of bebop rythms and phrasing mated to subtle social commentary. Most critics consider Hughes reticent on the subject of homosexuality, yet Montage includes this double critique-one of homophobia and heterosexism and one of the criminalization of sexual activities.
Cafe: 3 a.m. Detective from the vice squad with weary sadistic eyes spotting fairies. Degenerates, some folks say. But God, Nature, or somebody made them that way. Police lady or Lesbian over there? Where? Compare this to the work of any other poet publishing with a major house in the early 1950's. In the headnote to Montage, Hughes declares, In the terms of current Afro-American popular music and sources from which it has progressed--jazz, ragtime, swing, blues, boogie-woogie, and be-bop--this poem on contemporary Harlem, like be-bop, is marked by conflicting changes sudden naunces, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rythems, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes like the popular song, puncuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and distortions of the music of a community in transition. Langston Hughes, a poet who had cut his teeth and made his mark as a blues` poet, took up the challenge of writing book-length bebop jazz peom! Although, just like the music, there is a bedrock of blues undergirding the jazz structure, Hughes objective and success was in creating a modern jazz structure that allowed for a broader range of themes, voices, and even styles.
Some of the poems are epigrams, some are written as actual letters, some are conversations, and others are monologs; more than once we have poems that amount to sayings, folk definitions, and observations. Indeed, Montage is aptly named. In the whole history of American literature, no one has written a comparable poem that bases itself on a music form, and certainly no one has ever come close in the context of jazz. All other efforts at jazz poetry pale in comparison. Consider that Hughes does not take the easy way out. He chose not to emphasize the names of musicians or the names of musical compostions.
There is no attempt to imitate the sound of the horns (as was common in much of the Black Arts music-based poetry). The mosaic quality of the music, the intensity of expression, ...
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