This Old Poem #65:
Langston Hughes’ I Dream A World
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/20/03

  Langston Hughes hit it big in the early 20th Century by becoming America’s ‘Dark Poet’ Laureate, after being ‘discovered’ by poet Vachel Lindsay. Above all other black poets, even the few who had more talent & accomplishment, LH reigned supreme. In fact, only a ½ dozen, or so, white American poets had greater name recognition.
  His ‘feud’ with Countee Cullen, over whether a black poet was a BLACK poet, or a black POET, was legendary, as was his- then scandalous- homosexual lifestyle. The goods: 

  James Langston Hughes was born February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. His parents divorced when he was a small child, and his father moved to Mexico. He was raised by his grandmother until he was thirteen, when he moved to Lincoln, Illinois, to live with his mother and her husband, eventually settling in Cleveland, Ohio. It was in Lincoln, Illinois, that Hughes began writing poetry. Following graduation, he spent a year in Mexico and a year at Columbia University. During these years, he held odd jobs as an assistant cook, launderer, and a busboy, and travelled to Africa and Europe working as a seaman. In November 1924, he moved to Washington, D.C. Hughes first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1926. He finished his college education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania three years later. In 1930 his first novel, Not Without Laughter, won the Harmon gold medal for literature.

  Hughes, who claimed Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman as his primary influences, is particularly known for his insightful, colorful portrayals of black life in America from the twenties through the sixties. He wrote novels, short stories and plays, as well as poetry, and is also known for his engagement with the world of jazz and the influence it had on his writing, as in Montage of a Dream Deferred. His life and work were enormously important in shaping the artistic contributions of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Unlike other notable black poets of the period--Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Countee Cullen--Hughes refused to differentiate between his personal experience and the common experience of black America. He wanted to tell the stories of his people in ways that reflected their actual culture, including both their suffering and their love of music, laughter, and language itself.

  Langston Hughes died of complications from prostate cancer in May 22, 1967, in New York. In his memory, his residence at 20 East 127th Street in Harlem, New York City, has been given landmark status by the New York City Preservation Commission, and East 127th Street was renamed "Langston Hughes Place."

  Now, the skinny- LH was a very overrated poet. This is not to say he was a poetaster- far from it- he had 1 of the 3 or 4 best ears for poetry of those poets in his era. He was also, along with the young Quincy Troupe & Stephen Jonas, 1 of the only passable ‘jazz’ poets. Still- his poetry is rather simplistic in comparison with the poetry of a Pound or Eliot- & even Cullen. He cannot seriously be thought of as in a league with a Hart Crane, Robinson Jeffers, or Wallace Stevens. Perhaps the best comparison, quality-wise & output-wise would be with weird old Marianne Moore. A comparison with other 20th Century black poets of note shows LH to be clearly inferior to Cullen, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, & James Emanuel- lacking the diversity & range of subject & form that those poets mastered. He also had some poor construction, & worrisome dips into banality & clichés- even in some of his most famous poems like:

The Negro Speaks Of Rivers

I’ve known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

  The underlined are, of course, clichés of the worst sort. Compare that to 1 of his most famous poems, from Montage Of A Dream Deferred- & bear in mind that some of its phrases- although trite now- were utterly fresh when the poem was written.

Dream Deferred

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?

  Unfortunately the titular poem does not fare as well, upon rereading, as the prior poem does. Look at the forced syntactical inversions, the bathos, the posturing, & the- let’s face it- sappiness in almost every line. This is a poem screaming out for a more mature handling- a stylistic tweaking to really bring the ideas to the fore. 1st, the original:

I Dream a World

I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom's way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl,
Attends the needs of all mankind-
Of such I dream, my world!

  Now, the rewrite:

I Dream a World

I dream a world where man
will bless the earth paths adorn
I dream a world where all
Will know greed no longer saps
Nor blights our day. I dream,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl.

  From 16 lines to 9- & we lose the bathos. But let’s see what is added by the compression. The blasé rhyme scheme is torched, & instead of just pie-in-the-sky wistfulness we get some interesting juxtapositions & a really intriguing poem end. Compare the original’s teeth-grinding preciousness with the rewrite’s stark juxtaposition of human & non-human- as well as the emotional upkick that comes out of nowhere, yet- is far more affirming than the original, as well being more in line with ‘showing’, rather than ‘telling’ what it’s about. &, is not that the advice that they always tell you in workshops & MFA classes?

Final Score: (1-100):

Langston Hughes’ I Dream A World: 62
TOP’s I Dream A World: 82

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