As we continue our celebration of National Poetry Month, I remind us all that not everything in poetry needs to be heavy business. For example, here’s a poem by American writer Langston Hughes, a man known largely for his poetry that deals frankly with the Afro-American experience, and this poem of his was published in a magazine founded by W. E. B. Du Bois during the famed Harlem Renaissance.
But wait, not only is this a poem about springtime, it’s a children’s poem written for Du Bois’ children’s magazine The Brownies’ Book. I first learned about this pioneering publication for Afro-American children at the My Life 100 Years Ago blog, which among other things often covers what was happening with magazines of that era.
Hughes himself wrote today’s poem when he was a teenager, and The Brownies’ Book was the first publication to publish his poetry. “April Rain Song” is a charming poem, and in rhythm and poetic tactics it reminds me of Carl Sandburg, a fellow Midwesterner whose writing influenced the young Hughes. Here’s a link to the text of Hughes’ poem if you want to follow along.
Check out the high school graduate in far right middle row. Yup, that’s Langston Hughes.
It’s been April rainy the past two days in my city, so working on making “April Rain Song” a Parlando Project piece had overcast and setting. Hughes here shows me a mode I sometimes aim for: it’s a nature poem, but specifically set in a city, not in some rural nature. The rain meets sidewalks and street-gutters, not some Eden.
Rain, specifically spring rain, has a strong memory element for me. Perhaps you share this? Outside in rain I’ll often recall other wet spring days, watching from the current distance my child-self walking beside miniature gutter rivers, observing for no particular reason their sweep around last years’ leaves and last winter’s final dusky ice clumps. Or perhaps you recall a particular roof on which fell our general rain? Was Langston Hughes too young yet to have that experience of memory when he wrote this poem? I cannot say, but I have that now, and so I add a bit of wistfulness to his words today.
A hundred years ago, a teenager is riding on a train to Mexico. He’s just left his high school in Ohio. He’s Black. Most of the school was white. When he was in Junior High, the class was asked to elect a class poet. The teacher suggested it should be someone who understood rhythm, and so they elected him. Ah huh…but then he’s also done well at school and now his teachers are suggesting college. That poetry that he had been elected to is sticking with him, literature too. The first successful Black American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar had been from Ohio. He thinks “This is possible.”
The teenager is traveling alone on the train. He’s already accustomed to that. If his poppa was a rolling stone, then his mom was moss. They’d split up before he entered school. His father moved far about, following his business interests, and he was the one in Mexico the young man was traveling to. His mother had left him when he was a young child in the care of his grandmother, and then the grandmother died just as he became a teenager. After that, he and his mother tried to reconnect. Mother. Son. Perhaps the deepest tie there is. It didn’t quite work.
The train crosses the Mississippi, the indispensable dividing river of America. He watches out the train window. A train line is a story someone wrote. A river is history — it’s there even if you don’t know it is. But the young man knows more history than many young men knew then, or that many know now.* In particular, he knew that Abe Lincoln, scuffling for work as a young man, had manned a freight-loaded flatboat down that river to New Orleans in 1828. His freight was goods in crates, and New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi was a commercial center for goods. While there young Lincoln sees another market, another type of goods: Black people being bought and sold as livestock.
How ignorant was the young Lincoln of slavery? There were a small number of slaves in the Illinois County Lincoln was traveling from.** The slave market in New Orleans was Americas largest. Perhaps slavery was mostly a story someone told Lincoln before that.
Back in 1920, our Black teenager on the train pulls out the handiest scrap of paper he can find, a letter from his father. On the bare places of that paper, outside his father’s words, he composes today’s poem. He’s going to Mexico City to spend some time with his father and to ask him if he’ll help pay for college so he can study literature.
They spend a summer together in Mexico. Father and son. So often there’s a deep tie between such, but in this case it didn’t quite work. In the end this was the deal they negotiated: yes, he’d help his son with college — but no, he had to study something useful: engineering.***
The young man tries to hold up this agreement. He enters Columbia University in New York City to, yes, study engineering. It doesn’t work. The young man drops out of college and begins working as a bus-boy, but he’s writing poems, and in June of 1921 W.E.B. DuBois’ The Crisis magazine publishes today’s poem, the one he wrote on the back of his father’s letter on the train: “A Negro Speaks of Rivers.” In 1925 it also appears in The New Negro anthology which I’m using as a theme here this month. Here’s a link to the full text of the poem.
Our young man was Langston Hughes. Today’s post is a story based on the little I know about how he came to become a writer. Stories are something we have to write, we engineer them, we build them, lay them out. But, history? History is a river. It’s there whether you know it or not. Surely it goes on, whether you know it or not. Shouldn’t you know it? Shouldn’t I know it? Shouldn’t we know it?
Full circle. After Hughes died in 1967 his ashes were interred in the the middle of this mosaic depicting “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” on the floor the lobby of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.
*Indeed, somehow our teenager knew more about Black history than many would have in his time, and the chance that he learned much if any of this in school was low. Forty some years later when I was a teenager, I asked my Freshman Western Civ. teacher an innocent question: “Were the ancient Egyptians Black?” He seemed startled at the question. Hughes was hip to that question in 1920.
However interrupted and strained Langston Hughes’ relationship with his family was, he must have been pointed in some directions by them. A chief source was likely that grandmother who took care of him until she died when Langston was 13. Did she know stories or history? Well, Hughes’ grandmother’s first husband was Lewis Sheridan Leary, who died during the 1859 Harpers Ferry raid just before the Civil War.
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. 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.