Langston Hughes’ Dream Variation

Returning now to the poets presented in Alain Locke’s 1925 The New Negro  anthology, we’ve come to the poet I most associate with the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes. Though he was born in the Midwest and traveled some, Hughes actually lived for much of his life in New York City, unlike some others associated with that artistic flowering. And though Locke’s book concentrated on young, up and coming writers for the most part (Hughes was 23 when The New Negro  was published) Hughes’ literary career continued on a more or less continuous path until his death in 1967.

So, if I was asked “Name a Harlem Renaissance poet.” My first answer would have always been “Langston Hughes.” And if Locke’s book is the launch point for that, Hughes was as prominent as any other young writer featured there and then, even if in 1925 he had yet to publish a single book.

Young Langston Hughes

Young Langston Hughes. Hey Pharrell, pretty sharp work on those fedora creases don’t you think.


This makes it strange then when I went to do a little research on how Hughes was judged during his 40 plus years as a literary artist. The summaries I read often point out that he was down-rated during his career, and to some degree up to the present day. Why? Well, he did have to go through the dangerous 1930s when political engagement was expected of writers, and like some others he had to handle the double-bind of associations and sympathy for the Russian Revolution and Communism and then later criticism of its faults. Many of the promotors of The New Negro  era were so focused on up-lifting the race and demonstrating high-culture acceptance that they were uneasy about Hughes’ embrace of a wider range of Afro-American experience. And finally, there seems to be an element of purely literary judgement he shares with Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman (two of Hughes’ influences) that what he wrote was judged as too simpleminded and unironic. Sure, the high-culture critics would essay: that kind of poetry might have readership broader than many, but it doesn’t fit the literary criteria ascendant as the 20th century unrolled.

Today’s piece, “Dream Variation,”  one of Hughes’ poems printed in The New Negro,  is a short nature poem. Here’s a link to the full text of it.* Like a lot of lyric poetry, you can read it quickly and superficially with some pleasure. It has rhyme and its rhythms.  It counts off some pleasant if not overly spectacular word-music. The first time through you may think it’s just pointing out a commonplace, something one could summarize as: “Hey, it’s nice when it sunny and you’ve got a day outside. And then a summer night when you finally go to bed — that’s nice too.”

Wait a minute. What’s with Hughes’ title: “Dream Variation?”   First off, that seems to say that kind of summer carefree pleasure isn’t something the poem is experiencing right now. Like Wordsworth’s daffodils, the poem’s speaker is experiencing this mentally, as if in a dream. That’s a different thing isn’t it. In the same way that a love poem about lost love is not the same as a poem about present love, this is a poem containing longing. Many of us are reading this during this February in North America. Likely you may relate to that state the poem is actually portraying.

I have no way of knowing what the weather was like when Hughes wrote his poem, but Hughes estranged father lived in Mexico where Hughes visited him before embarking for New York City and the beginnings of his literary career. So that titular variation may be a dream not only of passing seasons but of lost places too.

But there’s another way that variation means. In music it’s when a composer modifies elements of an established motif and we see it morph into a new related shape. Do you see what Hughes does here in his short poem? There’s a statement about dancing, arms wide and accepting, in the sun — and then resting in the evening “beneath a tall tree.” An interlude, when inside the body of the poem they express that this is “my dream” — not what they’re doing as they speak the poem. Next we learn that the “bright” day is now described as “quick” and the following “cool” evening is now “pale” evening. And finally, the real metamorphosis: the poem’s speaker is now not “Beneath a tall tree” — there is just a tall tree that remains as night comes.

This variation is subtle and somewhat undefined, mysterious, once you notice it. Is this a statement of the poem’s speaker’s absence from the warm place, that in the variation he’s no longer present? Has the speaker’s life, the proverbial “quick day” ended? Or, is it something even stranger: in the dream he’s no longer the external dancer beneath the tree, external to the day, external to the night, but now he’s become them?**   In dream logic it can be all those separate things at once. That’s part of why a dream experience can be so striking!

In this poem, like in some of the poems of Sandburg that I’ve presented here, I maintain that the simple language and seemingly straightforward scene of the poem has misled some readers and some critics. If I was encountering this poem as if I was translating from some Tang Dynasty Chinese classical poet, I would be aware that the poem may not be whamming me on the head about “Look it’s clever metaphor after metaphor! My, how complex a plot I can stuff into my poem! I bet no one ever said anything as complex as this ever before!” Perhaps the assumption is that a working-class Afro-American or the son of a Swedish immigrant can’t be thinking anything more complex than class-struggle position papers.

In my performance of Hughes’ “Dream Variation”  I consciously sought to bring out the mysterious element here. Stubbornly the harmonic progression I composed sticks closely to a core around the D note of the scale. Chords move between major and minor however and there’s a rub up and down with a D# Major7. The player to hear my musical performance may appear below, but if you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink is another way to hear it.


*I used the text as printed in Locke’s anthology for my performance as it’s in the public domain. The version I link to is later and includes some, well, variations. In the newer version taken from Hughes’ Collected Poems,  the title has become plural, “Variations,”  “the bright day” has become “the white day,” and a couple of other smaller changes were made. One could speculate that the “bright day” vs “white day”  could have been suggested by an editor as less confrontational.

**And I haven’t even entered into the significant racial aspect that is there as well. The dark night in the poem’s first experience as being first external to the poem’s speaker and being one with it in the second “Black like me.” As an Afro-American poet, Langston Hughes almost certainly intends this, and it may be the most consciously intended message he wished the reader to receive: that poem’s journey via its variation is from experiencing one’s Blackness as externally to an internalized appreciation of it, and that later revision from “bright” to “white” for the first instance of the day underlines that reading.  I featured the above reading not to obscure that, but because our particulars as persons bleed into our commonalities as people. When William Butler Yeats or Joseph Campbell speak of being colonialized Irish, it’s not just about their particulars. When Du Fu speaks of being overcome by great events, it’s not just 8th century China that has felt that. When Emily Dickinson’s mind grasps onto a flower or abstract thought and sees its edges always curling, she’s not reduceable to a bourgeois New Englander. And so to when Langston Hughes speaks about being Afro-American in 1920s America. And frankly, I’m hesitant to assume an Afro-American identity as a performer of Hughes’ poem, even as I want to bring it forward to your attention.

Update: An alternate primary reading that the first dream variation is an unachieved dream and that the second is a reflection of the reality of Afro-American life colored by racism seems widespread. Widespread enough that I wonder if Hughes wrote of his intent or understanding of his poem’s meaning at some point. For example many of the alternate readings say the poem’s second dance and whirl is work-a-day and likely menial work inside a Capitalist and Racist system that wouldn’t value Hughes. Hughes experience and political thoughts could be consistent with writing a poem that expressed that. As much as I should doubt my reaction to the text of the poem as printed in 1925, I’m still not seeing that as being the inevitable and singular reading of the second variation, but I offer this update as a self-confessed non-expert on Hughes’ work and because I suspect not a few students come here via web searches to seek insight into poems, and so they should be aware of this other reading.


William Carlos Williams’ Thursday

How many poems celebrate the poet’s dream, or dreams? This one doesn’t.

It’s fair to say that American poet William Carlos Williams had a curmudgeonly streak. In this poem from his 1921 collection Sour Grapes  he holds the line for the style that early Modernists had championed to break free from the poetic fancies that preceded them. By the 1920s the Modernists were moving on to new things, and it’s safe to say that many of them had developed new fancies. Indeed, in three-years-time the first Surrealist Manifesto would be published. The Surrealists went further than our usual sentiments about the value of an individual’s personal dream presented in the context of following one’s dream with the idea that it would integrate into our plans for work or a place in society. The Surrealists didn’t want to domesticate one’s dreams to society, they wanted to bring the full wildness of dreams to the fore and let society make whatever of it.

But, here’s Williams’ poem “Thursday,”  which you can find by following this link. First off, I see that he uses very plain language here, and there’s little trickery or poetic obscurity in his manner of speech either. There are no references to ancient myths, no quotes from Latin or Greek, or even Elizabethan English. He starts by noting the ubiquity of dreams, and at least for the purposes of this poem, he doubts their worth. I like the choice of words he uses here for why he’s going to skip the value of his dreams aspirational or Surrealist: “carelessly.” In other words: I don’t care about that all,  at least in this poem’s now. Instead, he spends the body of the poem inhabiting the body of the poet — as we the reader may too if we come along with Williams.

WCW at the Wheel

WCW at the wheel. “Yeah, but I’m driving and we’ll have some good ol’Imagism and none of that pretentious stuff.”


This is part of what I found intriguing when, as part of this project, I revisited the original English-language Modernists early work. I loved Surrealism as a young poet. I liked Dada referencing nothing and T. S. Eliot referencing whole libraries. But before those evolutions existed, what Modernism first used in English to break free and “make it new” was very concrete and radically simple: the presentation of the experience of brief charged moments that could include the revolutionary act of taking notice of the mundane and unexalted.

Like just a “Thursday”  in Williams’ life, in your life, in mine.

The player gadget to hear my performance of Williams’ “Thursday”  should be below, but if your blog reading software doesn’t show it, this highlighted hyperlink will do the job too. More work with piano this time and a return of an orchestra section. I keep hoping to return to more fierce electric guitar soon here. We’ll see.

Lola Ridge’s Dream

It was those other Twenties, the last ones before ours. Some people are in the streets, angry and sad in every mixture, protesting lives that will taken away by force of law. Authors Katherine Anne Porter, John Dos Passos, Edna St. Vincent Millay*  are among them. Mounted police are before this ragged line of protestors who are sagging back from the horses of disaster.

Here’s Porter’s account** of a moment in that night, resurrected from her notes 50 years later for a magazine article:

One tall, thin figure of a woman stepped out alone, a good distance into the empty square, and when the police came down at her and the horse’s hoofs beat over her head, she did not move, but stood with her shoulders slightly bowed, entirely still. The charge was repeated again and again, but she was not to be driven away. A man near me said in horror, suddenly recognizing her, ‘That’s Lola Ridge!’ and dashed into the empty space toward her. Without any words or a moment’s pause, he simply seized her by the shoulders and walked her in front of him back to the edge of the crowd, where she stood as if she were half-conscious.”

That’s a remarkable story, one often recounted about Lola Ridge in our newer century, and it was my first introduction to the poet whose text I’ll present today. What might one think from this testimony about Lola Ridge? Brave, foolhardy, self-less, self-harming, committed, able to throw it all away?

Lola Ridge 1

Perhaps as an aesthetic choice, Ridge never smiled in her photos.

Best as I can tell, she was all these things and more. Before this event she had been born in Dublin Ireland and her family had emigrated to New Zealand while she was a child. Eventually finding herself as a young woman in a bad marriage there she fled to Australia, took up poetry and visual art, emigrated once again to the United States, first landing in San Francisco, but proceeding to New York City and the Modernist and Anarchist ferment there around the time of WWI.

She was published by and was associated with the leading Modernist publications of her time, and her poetry was firmly in the free-verse and Imagist style, but with a significant commitment to portraying poverty and urban grit . Even among her co-revolutionaries in politics and the arts she stood out then by her austere commitment to these then somewhat intermingled causes.

It’s a complicated story about why you may not have heard of Ridge, but today you’ll get to hear one of her poems performed. Titled “The Dream,”  it’s easy to see it as an Imagist poem. Like so many of the Modernist movement poems it’s a charged, compressed moment told with images without a single overt statement of emotion. The uneven lines and unusual line breaks and the use of colors for adjectives are hallmarks of Imagism. The full text of “The Dream”  is linked here if you’d like to read along.

“The Dream”  was published in Ridge’s second book-length collection Sun Up in 1920, but I don’t know when it was written. It’s possible that it, or some version of it, might date back to her days in Australia, since Sydney harbor is mentioned. Following from its title, it can be taken as a somewhat apocalyptic or fantastic vision. Or you can take it as expression of a rough morning’s awaking. It’s also a word painting of an urban scene, and in that guise it seems to focus in on pollution. Indeed, part of it could pass for poetic reportage on the strange Australian and American skies this year after the massive forest fires.

Red Forest Fire Skies US and Australia 2020

“Air heavy…Vapor of opium…Sulphurous mist…Its sun the junk of red iron” skies after massive forest fires in the Western US and earlier this year in Australia.

I made do with a simple demo recording of the main vocal and acoustic guitar track for my presentation of “The Dream”  so that I’d have time to complete the string quartet part of two violas, a violin, and a ukulele bass faking a pizzicato cello part. Real string composers and players will note how simple my parts are for the quartet. I sometimes think of my string writing as “punk-rock orchestral,” in that I hope simplicity in my technique and conception brings a certain focus on the unfussy parts of music that might still have an impact on the listener. The player gadget to hear it should be below (unless you read this on the WordPress reader for the iPhone or iPad, in which case you’ll need to switch to a browser to hear the music, or subscribe to the audio pieces via Apple Podcasts).


*Millay wrote about the cause of this protest, the execution of two anarchist immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti, in this bitter poem presented here last October.

**There’s much more in a wider account of the protests and events surrounding this incident written by Porter in 1977 when she was 86 that can be read here.

Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock

As we continue our April celebration of National Poetry Month, here’s a poem by Wallace Stevens. Like Keats, Stevens was another poet I liked as a teenager, and like Keats I read him for his language without having a substantial grasp on what exactly he was getting at yet.

“Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock”  is however fairly straightforward, even if it also exhibits several tactics of early 20th century Modernist verse. For example, it’s crazy for color adjectives. The poem has 66 words, and 10 of them are colors. I don’t know how many other readers* of this poetic era notice this like I do, but that sort of thing was widespread. The Imagists who helped initiate English language Modernism often favored visual images, and color is one way to add vividness without resorting to worn-out metaphors. And painters in England and France had already been using a brighter and more colorful palette for some time, probably influencing the poets.

It’s a subtle point I noticed today after working with this poem, but when Stevens launches into his litany of colors that he imagines would make a more exciting gown, he moves like a color wheel. He starts with green and ends with a robe of yellow and blue—pigments that if mixed, would make green again. Is this an inside painter’s joke?

Re-justifying my teenage love of Stevens, I found this poem, though free verse, does have its word-music. Besides that circling riff on gown-colors, there’s the near rhyme of the litany’s end-word “rings” with the concluding “strange” at the end of the list, and the lovely chime of “old sailor” with “here and there.”

It wouldn’t be a Stevens poem without an odd word or two. “Ceintures,” a French based fashion word which I may have mangled a bit in performance** is a beaded belt. “Periwinkles” does at least double-duty besides being an unusual word choice. In the context of the “old sailor” it may be referring to a small sea-snail, but it’s also a violet-hued flower that has given its name to a color.

Wallace Stevens and night-wear

Couture, rings, ceintures, strange. Wallace Stevens waits to slip into something more comfortable. The long gray trousers could conceal lace socks.


The point of Stevens’ poem is the better necessity of imagination and of fancy, set against a fixed early bedtime and bland nightwear. I do think that original color litany is something of a forced march, as if the poems speaker may be trying to break out of that mundane scene in a rote manner, as if reciting colors would bring imaginative dreams as counting sheep might bring slumber. Then we meet up with the drunken sailor who can’t be bothered changing into nightwear: sleeping, dreaming with his boots on of that any-sorts snails and great apes, and chasing, and even more, catching tigers, unafraid.

I wrote this on guitar but decided to play this as a piano trio with drums and bass. The piano is mostly a Fender Rhodes, an early successful electric piano that used amplified tuned-tines rather than strings. It was common back in my youth for these instruments to be run through guitar amplifiers, picking up some grit from an overloaded circuit, and often reverb and tremolo from the amp too. If you listen carefully in the minor chord part of the piece, the pianist is doubling the piano part with another electric piano, which brings in a bit of an amplified string sound to the more bell-like Rhodes. That was my idea to make the major chord and minor chord sections contrast just a bit more.

You can hear my performance of Wallace Stevens’ “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock”  with the player gadget below. The text of the poem is here if you’d like to read along.




*It was something that the Spectra hoaxers of 1916 picked up on when they sought to parody poetic Modernists, speckling their verse with lots of color adjectives. The name of their hoax movement could even be read as referencing that color fixation.

**I often have trouble with pronunciation of French words, something that I sometimes wonder is similar to those with stuttering or other speech impediments. Well, assuming you don’t know the word, it may be enough for its effect in the poem to just sound exotic!

The Bird Dream

You can be in my dream, if I can be in yours. Bob Dylan said that.

You may have noticed that blog post frequency has fallen off a bit this month. Well besides the usual struggle of an upper Midwest winter, both alternative Parlando Project reader Dave Moore and I have had some extra tasks this month. I’ve been helping transition my mother-in-law to new living arrangements, and Dave has been working on editing a book of his father’s sermons.

Today’s post  is a piece that Dave wrote a few years back about his parents, and his father’s experience after Dave’s mother had died.  Like many good stories, it seeks to find meaningful connections in the flow of coincidental events.

And speaking of coincidence or archetypes or something, I wrote another piece myself a few years back. Though I did not mention it explicitly, my piece was also engendered by thinking of my father now living alone after my mother had died. Both pieces used the image of a bird trapped in a house.

I’ll not attach any more meaning than that to this. Today’s piece is Dave Moore’s story, read by Dave. Click on the gadget below to hear his story. Tomorrow I’ll post mine.