Summer 2021 Parlando Project Top Ten, numbers 4-2

Continuing our countdown of the most listened to and liked pieces here this past summer we move today to the numbers 4 through 2 on our list. I’ve mentioned that blog traffic and listens have dropped off a bit this summer, which from looking at past years stats follows a yearly trend. Things are picking up this month, which is encouraging — and even before autumn has begun, we’ve already rolled up our most page views and visitors for a year ever. Most of the blog visits come from those using search engines stumbling onto a particular page, and there are some perennially popular Parlando blog posts that draw visitors month after month and year after year. Maybe sometime this fall I’ll talk about those, but when it comes to listens to the audio pieces this summer, the list is all recent work, so let’s move on to them.

4. I, Too by Langston Hughes  I did a double post for American Independence Day, using texts from Walt Whitman (“I Hear America Singing”)  and this answer piece by Langston Hughes. Hughes’ piece easily outdrew the Whitman in listens, perhaps because it’s fresher to some listeners (Whitman’s piece has already had at least one widely-sung setting). Then too, the music I wrote for “I, Too”  was a catchy little cycle of chords that I played in full strums on acoustic guitar. To my ears, and apparently many of yours, it was simply effective.

Hughes wrote his poem as an individual Afro-American’s story, one paralleling his own biography, but it’s easy to see he intends it as a fully-earned addition to Whitman’s catalog of Unum’s in the E Pluribus. I decided to add onto Mr. Hughes’ lyric one short phrase at the ending, “If not us, who else,” in part to double-down the Independence Day point being made. Questions of cultural appropriation may prick us, their needling will establish these concerns have small if sharp and painful points, but the overall issue of who tells, who sings is long past decision. Story tellers will tell. Singers will sing. Poets can do both at the same time.

If you haven’t heard this one, or want to hear it again, there may be a player gadget below, and if not, this highlighted hyperlink can also play the piece.

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3. Sappho’s Old Age by Sappho  Speaking of cultural appropriation, yesterday in this Top Ten countdown we had a piece written by pioneering Canadian poet Bliss Carman presenting himself as if a reincarnated Sappho. Is that ridiculous? I guess it can’t help but be, but I honestly enjoyed his poem and performing it. However, this piece in today’s part of the countdown was somewhat more popular this summer and was actually largely written by Sappho.

Now it’s my turn to respectfully appropriate her work and twist it my way. Ancient Greek being — oh what’s a saying for this? Oh yes: “It’s Greek to me.” — I worked from literal glosses of the text and tried to turn it into singable modern English idiom. Then I got to the poem’s conclusion, and enchanted by the parallels with a poem by 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud that I presented here this spring, I decided to replace Sappho’s metaphor with one drawn from Rimbaud and his life.

Bliss, I guess you and I are in the same boat, probably on one of the lakes between my state and yours.

To hear the performance in my old age of Sappho’s song of her old age a lot of ages ago, you can use the gadget below or this highlighted hyperlink which will open a new tab window and play it.

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Bee Busy Hearts

Bee busy! Hearts! Summer photos by Heidi Randen.

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2. The Poem ‘The Wild Iris’ by Heidi Randen   Heidi wrote the text I used here at the end of a post at her blog this summer, though I added the music and additional repetitions and pauses of my device to the piece you’ll hear. In turn Heidi was resonating with something she had read in a poem by Louise Glück. So, in the end, I appropriated her work appropriating Glück’s. This process by which I appropriated the text as well as the musical repetition give it a rondeau effect if not that exact form.

Oddly, all this repetition was to present a thought about transitions, which Heidi and I are both going through this summer. Things cycle, things repeat, and then they don’t. Every day for months a parent picks up an infant and carries it somewhere. Then the toddler asks, and the parent lifts their toddling body to hip or shoulder and carries them bidden. One day they no longer ask, the parent no longer lifts, and never lifts again. And then sometimes, with time and age, the parent, will be carried by the child.

That and more. We can be so nearsighted with doorways, they sometime appear only when we are on the threshold.

You may see a player gadget below to play this highly popular piece from this summer, but some ways of reading the blog won’t show that. This highlighted hyperlink is another way to hear it.

An Independence Day Double-Header: I Hear America Singing and I, Too

Visits to this blog tend to go down on weekends, on holidays, and in the summer — so, congratulations if you’re reading this, you’ve managed to beat the crowds!

America is a young country, but after a bit of a slow start, we’ve been meeting our quota for poets, and by now the record shows a great variety and number of them. Who’s great? Who’s dispensable? Well, some days I wonder if any of that matters when poetry still has challenges getting traction on the slick surface of our nation. Still, one thing’s clear to me if I take stock of American poets, there’s no more American poet than Walt Whitman. That’s no accident: it was his life’s work to become the most American of poets. Few poets before and since have sincerely tried for that. Whitman did.

Whitman didn’t just want that personally. His poetry is full of invocations for other American bards to arise, with claims that the spirit of America would nurture and welcome them.

This Sunday is American Independence Day. Has he been right?

Our first piece today is one of Whitman’s best-known poems. In its litany of lines he shows us two things: that Americans love to sing and that America is the sum total of our varied labors.

Taking the last first. Whitman is going to concentrate on manual labor and trades in this poem. He could have written about other work and workers, even poets or professional musicians after all — but he says the songs he’s going to note are “those of the mechanics,” meaning the mechanical trades,* using the word in the same meaning that Shakespeare uses it when burlesquing the “rude mechanicals” and their ardently inept art in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  But Whitman is not making fun. He says nothing about the quality of their songs or singing, but the very length of his list indicates he values something in their number and variety. Overall (or overalls?) there’s celebration of masculine traits in the poem, though some work associated with women — and specific, specified work, not just sentimental “remember the ladies” stuff — is included in his list.

It’s fitting that in this summer month, as a holiday weekend approaches, that he ends his poem with a party, a get-together, but throughout “I Hear America Singing”  songs continue in work, in comradeship, in love. I would wish you too just as happy a July 4th.

It’s complicated to judge if American poetry disproportionately influences the world in our time, but one doesn’t have to go hard to make the case that American music has done so in the time since Whitman’s death. Whitman speaks of poetry as a bardic art, and so he uses “song” and “poetry” interchangeably when he speaks of his art, even if later most have come to see these as separate arts and that it’s important to distinguish between them.

Whitman asked that — more than that, promised that — there’d be many significant American poets to come. He got musicians. Close enough Walt.

Whitman-Hughes

Checking on the predictions of two American poet-prophets: Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes

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Some decades later, one of the poets that Whitman prophesied wrote an “answer record” poem to “I Hear America Singing.”  In “I, Too”  Langston Hughes, an Afro-American poet, decided to add one more labor example to Whitman’s litany. Hughes’ poem is sung from the position of a servant.**  In Whitman’s 19th century time, many/most of the jobs that Whitman cataloged would have been self-employed, and it’s clear that Hughes’ worker isn’t. Furthermore, as an Afro-American his segregation from the “company” is double-more with his class status. Make the food, serve the food, wash the dishes — but you won’t eat in the room with the guests.

Hughes too is going to prophesize a future America then from his 1925 present. Don’t speak too soon, the wheel’s still in spin he says in effect about that stay-in-the-kitchen status. He’s going to spin that wheel.

Nearly a hundred years later*** how have things worked out with Hughes’ prophecy? Poets have written. Songs have been sung. Work from American political mechanicals has gotten us partway there to equality of opportunity, to recognized accomplishments, to appreciation of Black beauty.****

Is this an unpatriotic thing to say on this holiday, that our workmanship on some important civic matters is slipshod? I’m no prophet, but if I was one, I might say that some day we could build the temple in time where we can see beauty presently while being ashamed in the past tense, just as Hughes promises.

What Americans could build this temple? If not us, who else?

For some of you there will be player gadgets to hear the two audio pieces today just below this paragraph. If you don’t see them, this highlighted hyperlink will play “I Hear America Singing”   and this one will play Langston Hughes’ response “I, To.”   Want to read along? Here a link to Whitman’s poem, and here’s one to Hughes’ poem. You may also notice that I used essentially the same music for both texts today. That’s me trying to show the two poems conversation. The first is the more formal presentation, the second a simple acoustic guitar folk song. Feel free to sing along with the “I, Too”  final chorus, including the line I’ve added to the original poem.

“I Hear America Singing”

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“I, Too”

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*I note that in his catalog Whitman mentions specifically house carpenters, the job his father held. He also mentions wood-cutters. Ezra Pound’s family had connections to the lumber industry, and in Pound’s poem “A Pact”  about Whitman, Pound calls out Whitman as a wood-cutter while patting himself on the back as the more developed “carver” of wood, a job further down the supply chain and further up the artistic hierarchy. Sick burn Ezra.

**Details of this aren’t completely clear, perhaps intentionally. Hughes poem’s speaker could be enslaved, or he could be a paid domestic servant. He could even be a restaurant worker, a job that Hughes himself held for a short time. Early in his life, his poetry career got a boost when he left some poems at the table of diner Vachel Lindsay when that Illinois poet visited the establishment where Hughes worked. Lindsay read them, thought they had value, and touted Hughes as a result.

***When the country was younger, July 4th was a day for speeches on our history. Now, for me, so strange to be so old, and how disappointing how slow citizenship equity is. In my youth, it was common to speak of racial justice and full rights as being an American goal a hundred years old, using the end of slavery as the starting line. And now we near 100 years from Langston Hughes’ poem. The famous “arc of history” is such a long archway that one should wonder why it hasn’t collapsed in the middle.

****Speaking of I hear America singing: disproportionally the reason that strains of American music are known worldwide is due to Africans taken to these American shores. American singing, American music, has many tributaries, many are important, even the many-ness itself is important — but as I’ve said here before: I am an American musician. Most of the notes are black.

Spring 2021 Parlando Project Top Ten, numbers 7-5

Let’s continue our countdown of the pieces you most listened to and liked this past spring. As we move up toward the most popular one, we start today with number 7. If you want to read my first thoughts when the piece was first published, the bold-faced headings are hyperlinks to that. How well will these poems mesh with today’s Father’s Day? Let’s find out.

7 April Rain Song by Langston Hughes.  Hughes gets two appearances in this spring’s top ten, and his second one here is yet another song of rainfall that fell in this season’s list. Hughes had a strong element of practicality in his poetry, clear-eyed looks at his times and place, necessary observations — even in this poem written for a short-lived children’s magazine that works as a calming lullaby, something a parent might sing to a child. I said last time in his early poetry I can hear Hughes adopting some of older poet Carl Sandburg’s approaches, and this poem pairs nicely with Sandburg’s “Branches”  that came in at number 9 this quarter doesn’t it. But then Hughes in turn helped inspire Gil Scott-Heron, and I can hear how Scott-Heron used and extended what he gathered from Hughes.

“April Rain Song”  is a lullaby from a man committed to documenting and encouraging change. Earlier this month with another lullaby by William Blake I considered how that paradox may be explained. To hear Langston Hughes’ poem performed, there’s a player gadget below for many of you, and for the others, this highlighted hyperlink will also work.

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6 The World Is a Beautiful Place by Lawrence Ferlinghetti   This is a rare piece here that is not AFAIK in the public domain and completely free for reuse, but the death of it’s author this year felt like something that I must respond to, and the way I usually do that here is to perform their words. Listeners last winter and persisting through the spring continued to listen to this performance of one of Ferlinghetti’s poems leading to its second consecutive appearance in a Parlando Top Ten. Copyright aside, if you don’t have one of Ferlinghetti’s books, go ahead and get one. The generosity of his poetry will more than repay your contribution in buying it.

But for many in my generation, Ferlinghetti, and in particular his collection A Coney Island of the Mind,  was always there. You’d visit someone’s apartment to talk, to organize, to party, to make out — and there in some improvised bookcase made of boards and bricks or milkcrates there’d be this book-cover wrapping a thin volume: black night and grey illumination that seemed to turn silver from its contrast.

Most of us were in a demographic that said we would likely have had parents then, but in a poem like this one Ferlinghetti was taking, to some suitable degree, the role to be our father. So, for this Father’s Day it is altogether right to listen again to him welcoming us to, and showing us, life. Player gadget below for some to hear the LYL Band’s performance, or this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab window to also play it.

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Gil Scott Heron - Coney Island of the Mind - Dawn chases Tithonus

Influences.  Langston Hughes influenced Gil Scott-Heron, Ferlinghetti opened up poetry to many of my generation — and while immortal Dawn’s chasing the young Tithonus still seems a little pervy once we leave the mythological world, Rimbaud might well have been borrowing from that myth.

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5 Dawn  by Arthur Rimbaud  Rimbaud on the other hand was never the suitable father figure for anyone. He might have been a teenager when he wrote this poem, but he wasn’t quite acting the child’s role here either, for as I translated this my understanding became that he and that personified borderland time of dawn have run off to the wilderness to swive.

But it just so happened, with a backwards echo, that after I translated this poem and moved on to translate a poem by Sappho, that the two poems were connected. Sappho’s ancient poem ended with the recounting of a Greek myth of Tithonus who, like the singer of Rimbaud’s 19th century poem, was taken off by a love-besotted Dawn. I didn’t know Sappho’s poem or this mythological story when I was translating the Rimbaud, but it now seems possible to probable that Rimbaud knew this myth and was referring to it in his poem. I dealt with this anachronistic learning timeline by replacing Tithonus with Rimbaud and the twist of Rimbaud’s own later life in the ending of my version of Sapho’s poem that you can read about here.

Many a father knows there’s an unintended corollary in Wordsworth’s line “The child is the father of the man.” The teenaged Rimbaud taught the aged me.

To hear my performance of Rimbaud trysting with the Dawn, you may have a player gadget, and if you don’t, this highlighted hyperlink will serve.

Spring 2021 Parlando Project Top Ten, numbers 10-8

It’s time for our every-quarter look back at what pieces you, my valued and appreciated listeners and readers listened to and liked most during the past Spring. This one turned out to be a tight bunch over the past three months, with only a little over a dozen listens and likes between the 1st and 10th position. Given the range of musics I’ll use and the variety of poetry presented, that means that there are a lot of different “yous” out there in this project’s audience, or that some of you don’t mind my jumping around a bit.

We’ll progress in the countdown format, starting with number 10 and over the next few days getting to the most listened to and liked one from this past springtime. If you missed what I wrote about each piece when it was first presented, the bold-faced titles are also hyperlinks to the original post where you can read more about my encounter with it.

10 The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes  One of my favorite pieces I’ve done this year. It’s been rare lately that I get to create, record and present an out-and-out electric guitar centered piece like this. This one would place higher except that it was released last winter and its February listens aren’t counted in the Spring Top Ten. As it happens, a great audio piece for Juneteeth though!

Here’s the player gadget to hear my performance of it, or for those who don’t see the player, a highlighted hyperlink that’ll open a new tab window to play it.

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9 Branches by Carl Sandburg   Sandburg set his poem specifically in April, but as much of the United States has current drought issues it might also serve as an invocation for some summer rain too. Nice to have this one next to the one above — Sandburg was one of Langston Hughes’ models when the younger poet created his own poetic voice.

Limits on recording time this year have led me to present more pieces as simpler and more immediate acoustic guitar and voice arrangements, some of which, like this one, seem to work pretty well.

Player gadget below, and here the alternative highlighted hyperlink.

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On electric guitar: Langston Hughes, acoustic guitar: Carl Sandburg, and on whistling bats with baby faces: T. S. Eliot.

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8 What the Thunder Said Part 3 by T. S. Eliot   Each April this project has presented a part of the landmark Modernist poem “The Waste Land.”  This April I completed that long task with the final section of the poem “What the Thunder Said.”  One of the few pieces this Spring where I got to deploy my orchestral instruments forcefully. Player below, alternatively this highlighted hyperlink.

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April Rain Song

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.

The Brownies Book

Check out the high school graduate in far right middle row. Yup, that’s Langston Hughes.

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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.

The player gadget to hear my performance of Hughes’ “April Rain Song”  is below for many of you, but if you don’t have it, this highlighted hyperlink will also play the song I made of it.

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A Negro Speaks of Rivers

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?

Langston Hughes Grave

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.

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The player gadget to hear my performance of Langston Hughes’ “A Negro Speaks of Rivers”  is below. If you don’t see the gadget, not to worry. This highlighted hyperlink will also play it.

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*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.

**This post says 13 enslaved people of the population of nearly 13,000 in Lincoln’s Sangamom County.

***I’ve also read that part of Langston Hughes’ father’s issues with his son was that he thought Langston effeminate, and Engineering (than, as still now) was a mostly male field.

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.

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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.

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*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.