Langston Hughes Reads Langston Hughes

James Mer­cer Langston Hugh­es’ poetry—joyful, cel­e­bra­to­ry, cut­ting, filled with deep long­ing, play­ful jabs, bit­ter­sweet images, and earnest affirmations—is pre-emi­nent­ly African Amer­i­can poet­ry. But in say­ing that I mean also to say that it is pre-emi­nent­ly Amer­i­can poet­ry, as the jazz and blues Hugh­es drew so much from is pre-emi­nent­ly Amer­i­can music. Hugh­es was com­mit­ted to the promis­es of the Amer­i­can experiment—despite and in full recog­ni­tion of its vicious con­tra­dic­tions—and he was also in live­ly con­ver­sa­tion with the poets who cap­tured and trans­mut­ed the country’s unique voic­es.

His “major ear­ly influ­ences,” writes crit­ic Arnold Ram­per­sad, “were Walt Whit­man, Carl Sand­burg, as well as the black poets Paul Lawrence Dun­bar, a mas­ter of both dialect and stan­dard verse, and Claude McK­ay, a rad­i­cal social­ist who also wrote accom­plished lyric poet­ry.” All of these influ­ences are read­i­ly appar­ent in his ear­ly work, and it was Sand­burg who led him “toward free verse and a rad­i­cal­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic mod­ernist aes­thet­ic.”

Hugh­es also descend­ed from a rad­i­cal polit­i­cal tra­di­tion, his cho­sen first name, Langston, the sur­name of an abo­li­tion­ist grand­fa­ther who died fight­ing with John Brown; when his grand­moth­er remar­ried, it was to a promi­nent Recon­struc­tion politi­cian. It’s a lega­cy that seems to have inspired in the poet a fierce hope for the country’s future that he express­es in that famous response to Whit­man, “I, Too.”

I’ll be at the table
When com­pa­ny comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beau­ti­ful I am
And be ashamed—

The lines of his col­lect­ed works have been read aloud in count­less class­rooms and from count­less stages as rep­re­sent­ing the best of the Harlem Renais­sance’s buoy­ant cri­tique and cel­e­bra­tion of every­thing con­tained in the des­ig­na­tion “African-Amer­i­can.” That’s not to say that Hugh­es’ poet­ry or his vision res­onat­ed with all of his con­tem­po­raries.

Two years after his death in 1967, author Lind­say Pat­ter­son in the New York Times called Hugh­es “the most abused poet in Amer­i­ca…. Seri­ous white crit­ics ignored him, less seri­ous ones com­pared his poet­ry to Cas­sius Clay dog­ger­el, and most black crit­ics only grudg­ing­ly admired him. Some like James Bald­win, were down­right mali­cious about his poet­ic achieve­ment.” Bald­win, writes Ani­ta Pat­ter­son (no rela­tion to Lind­say), “fault­ed Hugh­es for fail­ing to fol­low through con­sis­tent­ly on the artis­tic premis­es laid out in his ear­ly verse.” The lat­er poems, wrote Bald­win in 1959, “take refuge, final­ly, in a fake sim­plic­i­ty.”

And yet, Lind­say Pat­ter­son point­ed out, crit­ics like Bald­win and oth­ers mis­took “the sim­ple form and lan­guage of Hugh­es’ poet­ry for pauci­ty of mean­ing. His real mean­ings are nev­er that appar­ent,” and his poet­ry “must be heard, rather than read silent­ly, for one to real­ize its emo­tion­al scope.” In 1962 and 63, Hugh­es sat down with the BBC for a series of read­ings and inter­views, and lat­er, Caed­mon Records, who have for many decades record­ed and pre­served the voic­es of 20th poet­ry, released por­tions of those ses­sions as part of their “Essen­tial” series. That record­ing has now been ful­ly released on Spo­ti­fy (stream the 47 minute record­ing right below), and appar­ent­ly YouTube too.

You can hear Hugh­es read the famil­iar favorite “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (top) and below it, an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal intro­duc­tion to the poem. Fur­ther down, hear the less well-known, and much more tren­chant, poem, “The South,” which begins with grotesque, almost Faulkner­ian images in its open­ing lines:

The lazy, laugh­ing South
With blood on its mouth.
The sun­ny-faced South,
The child-mind­ed South

Of anoth­er less­er-known poem, “Mer­ry-go-Round,” above, Hugh­es says in com­men­tary titled “In My Poet­ry”: “I’ve nev­er been at a loss for mov­ing sub­ject mat­ter because I myself have faced many of these racial prob­lems all over the Unit­ed States, hav­ing lived from one end of the coun­try to the oth­er, in my now more than 50 years of life. One of the dra­mat­ic ways of express­ing the race prob­lem, I’ve found, is to express it through the eyes of a child, and I have done this through sto­ries and poet­ry.”

In the short, vio­lent “Ku Klux Klan,” above (some­times pub­lished as just “Ku Klux”) —a poem still trag­i­cal­ly all too relevant—Hughes dra­ma­tizes the bru­tal­i­ty a racist ide­ol­o­gy requires to force oth­ers to acknowl­edge it. The inter­nal rhymes and brevi­ty of the poem present us with an almost com­ic con­trast to the sub­ject. It is, writes crit­ic John Moore, “a strange­ly humor­ous poem,” sug­gest­ing “the pos­si­bil­i­ty that the man being lynched might be laugh­ing” at “the rit­u­al­ized bom­b­a­sity of the Klans­man,” fur­ther incit­ing his rage.

The ear­ly lyric poems in this record­ing show us Hugh­es engag­ing direct­ly with the lega­cies of slav­ery and Jim Crow and their last­ing effects; in these poems, he names “the bit­ter truth” Bald­win accused him, unfair­ly, of hid­ing behind the “hiero­glyph­ics” of jazz idioms in lat­er works like Mon­tage of Dream Deferred. The bits of expla­na­tion and auto­bi­og­ra­phy between the record­ed read­ings make the whole album a very reward­ing lis­ten. Whether you already know Hugh­es’ poet­ry well or have only encoun­tered famous poems like “Harlem,” The Essen­tial Langston Hugh­es will like­ly show you a side of the poet you may not have known before.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Langston Hugh­es Read Poet­ry from His First Col­lec­tion, The Weary Blues (1958)

Langston Hugh­es Presents the His­to­ry of Jazz in an Illus­trat­ed Children’s Book (1955)

Hear Hem­ing­way Read Hem­ing­way, and Faulkn­er Read Faulkn­er (90 Min­utes of Clas­sic Audio)

Hear Ten­nessee Williams Read Hart Crane’s “The Bro­ken Tow­er” and “The Hur­ri­cane” (1960)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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