It is now February, commonly thought of as the month of love. It’s also Black History Month! Many people might automatically associate this time with Valentine’s Day; however, I have another important, black history related date to share with you. On February 1st, 1902, Langston Hughes, an influential African-American poet, was born. Hughes is best known as a poet of the Harlem Renaissance who created a genre of poetry called “jazz poetry.” This month, I am featuring several of Hughes’ poems!
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
This poem is probably one of Hughes’ most famous poems. It is about the “darker brother” who is alienated from the dining table and forced to eat in the kitchen. He merely laughs, believing that one day he will be seen as the strong and beautiful person that he is, and no one will dare to send him away from the table. Hughes’ simple words, devoid of justification or explanation, show that these are his self-evident truths, which need no additional validation. With his final line, he enmeshes these truths with his American identity. Despite the simple, compact structure of this poem, Hughes communicates significant meaning.
I, too, am America
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
This poem shows the importance of dreams by portraying a life without them, like a “negative space” painting that shows the beautiful shape of a leaf by leaving its outline empty and neglecting to color in the leaf. Despite never describing the subject of the poem, Hughes creates strong imagery and communicates a clear message, showing that sometimes, even a poem with few words can carry meaning through the vastness and potential of what is not said.
Even a poem with few words can carry meaning through the vastness and potential of what is not said.
Tell them that I have attained flight.
Silence the doubters;
Tell them that from my arms grow feathers
That they are the color of light
Tell them of the surreal beauty
Of the sun above the clouds
That the clouds form misty shrouds
That obscure, yet allow you to see
Tell those that don’t believe
That I am the one who soared, free.
Defying, defying gravity.
As the previous poem, “Dreams,” mentioned birds and flying, I was inspired to write the above poem. I chose for the speaker to not directly talk to the “doubters,” instead commanding a disciple to tell them. This structure is reminiscent of “Dreams” in that it also uses vivid imagery, but it is slightly different because it does not explain what the “flight” represents.
This article has explored a few examples of jazz poetry, the aforementioned genre popularized by Langston Hughes. There were two stages in the development of this genre: poetry explicitly about jazz (the earlier form), and poetry that incorporated the rhythms and repeated phrases of jazz (this was the type Hughes preferred). Many poets utilized variations of this style in their work, even those who claimed to hate jazz. For instance, Vachel Lindsay supposedly abhorred jazz, yet his poetry was meant to be sung or chanted, making it an example of jazz poetry.
Now it’s your turn! Write either a negative space poem or a jazz poem, and post it in the comments below.
“Thomas Hardy: Behind the Mask [Explaining the Poems].” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, 6 Oct. 2015, www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/brief-guide-jazz-poetry.
“Langston Hughes.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/langston-hughes.