My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When I’ve seen someone do something really well, it often inspires me to try it for myself – especially as it pertains to writing. When I read a really good book, it makes me want to write fiction. When I hear a really good performance, it makes me want to write songs.
And after reading The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, I want to write poetry so badly that all of my thoughts have been forming in blank verse for days.
I first discovered Langston Hughes in high school. I was part of our school’s Academic Challenge Bowl team (yes, it’s even nerdier than it sounds) and one of my assignments was to read through this fat anthology of American Literature. The book had a section on the Harlem Renaissance. For the most part, I felt like a poser whilst reading it – I hadn’t really experienced the oppression or suffering in my fourteen years of life that Arna Bontemps and Claude McKay were describing. It made me vaguely uncomfortable to try to understand – how could I, an Asian teen living in the mostly-Caucasian suburbs and attending a predominantly Hispanic school, understand the woes and triumphs of a black man fighting for human rights in 1920s Harlem?
But then I got to Hughes.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
I knew what it meant to have a dream deferred. In some ways, a dream deferred is worse than a dream completely crushed. When a dream is crushed, you can let it go and start to heal. But a dream deferred leaves you with hope, leaves you hanging on. Sometimes you think you’ll never heal. And the reactions to this situation can vary from day to day. You might be angry one day, despondent the next, okay with it a few days later, and then back to anger by the end of the week.
Langston Hughes understood it. And I understood Langston Hughes. And, suddenly, I felt like I could read Bontemps and McKay and understand them, too.
I started picking up all the Hughes I could get my hands on. I haunted the library that summer, looking for poems I’d skipped over. I didn’t care much for poetry at that point in my life, but reading Hughes changed that almost instantly. Suddenly, I loved the lyrical quality that separates poetry from prose.
So when I ran into this book at Barnes and Noble a few years back, I just had to get it.
And I’ve been slowly reading through it ever since, savoring the verse and the rhythm and the words.
Hughes writes about a rainbow of topics, not all of them serious. He writes about love, freedom, poverty, oppression, beauty, pain – and every other shade of life experience you can imagine.
He’s famous for his contribution to the Harlem Renaissance, but his work transcends the movement. Hughes is relatable. He took his specific suffering and sees in it the thing that connects us all – humanity. He had a gift for showing you that glint of commonness amongst all the differences.
But Langston Hughes didn’t just write about the plight of the black man. I love that this volume includes his verses for children – fanciful verse, without a trace of the fire and sorrow that surge through so many of his poems for adults.
Through the course of reading this book, Langston Hughes has been cemented in his position as my favorite poet. He expresses so perfectly the gamut of the life experience. He understood it. And when I read him, I can, too.