Langston Hughes is Better than Ever

Langston Hughes’ birthday was the other day.  It’s been a long time since I had the patience for poetry but Hughes is so lovely and so accessible that I was able to pick him right up again.  I find his work charmingly uneven.  It ranges from the sweet, if not terribly profound:

Feet O’ Jesus

At the feet o’ Jesus
Sorrow like a sea.
Lordy, let yo’ mercy
Come driftin’ down on me.

At the feet o’ Jesus
At yo’ feet I stand.
O, ma little Jesus,
Please reach out yo’ hand.

(I’d pray this!  Except I’d feel a little awkward speaking that dialect.)

to the deceptively simple:


Sometimes a crumb falls
From the tables of joy,
Sometimes a bone
Is flung.

To some people
Love is given,
To others
Only heaven.

(I think this poem is fully aware that there’s nothing “only” about heaven as a reward for a lifetime of suffering; but it doesn’t shrink away from the fact that sometimes that doesn’t make us feel better!  I wonder if he’s also alluding to the attempt to pacify oppressed people and keep them from claiming their rights by making them focus on the afterlife instead of this one.  This reminds me of Bob Marley’s “Get up, Stand up:” “Preacher man, don’t tell me heaven is under the earth…If you knew what life is worth, / you would look for yours on earth.”)

to the really devastating:

Song for a Dark Girl

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
They hung my black young lover
To a cross roads tree

Way Down South in Dixie
(Bruised body high in air)
I asked the white Lord Jesus
What was the use of prayer.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
Love is a naked shadow
On a gnarled and naked tree.

(The sing-song rhythm and the quote from “I Wish I was in Dixie-Land” bring the irony to a heart-breaking level. Hughes imagines what it’s like for a persecuted black girl to hear a white nostalgia song about Dixie, when the Dixie she knew was no paradise. I’m blown over by the way he simultaneously expresses the girl’s distrust in the “white” God of Christianity and identifies her lover as a Christ-figure. The final image of the poem confirms the paradox–Love (her frustrated love, and the love of Christ) are defeated and stripped naked; but her lover’s solidarity with the Christ of Calvary may earn him a place with the Christ of the Resurrection.)


And then there’s Langston Hughes, the good old ball of cheese, when his earnestness gets the best of him:

Well.  I was going to quote one of his rambling, un-rhythmic, patriotic poems (“FREEDOM! / BROTHERHOOD! / DEMOCRACY! / To all the enemies of these great words: / We say, NO!”), but the more I read, the more depth and poetry I see in them, after all. Maybe I’m in a cheesy mood. So I’ll leave you with something we all need to remember these days (from the poem “In Explanation of Our Times):

…the radio, too, foggy with propaganda
that says a mouthful
and don’t mean half it says–
but is true anyhow:
True anyhow no matter how many
Liars use those words.

I had intended to move on to another poet, Bruce Springsteen, who I think has a lot in common with Hughes, but I think I better leave that for tomorrow. Time to go cook supper.





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