Review: The Weary Blues, Langston Hughes

weary bluesLangston Hughes was only twenty-four when this collection of poetry was published. This is astounding to me, that, as such a young man, he wrote poems of such grace, depth, and, perhaps most striking—originality. Like Whitman before him, he seems to be recreating poetry on the page, imbuing his words with soulfulness. He balances a playful and accessible vernacular with something much darker. He truth-tells in a voice that is aching, honest, joyful. The assertion Hughes is making though this poetry—his right to celebration and love, to walking in the night, to music, to taking joy from his life as a black man in America—is powerful and deeply relevant today.

He confronts suffering with a heartbreaking matter-of-factness. He writes about the pain of folks all over Harlem—lonely prostitutes, men and women singing the blues, dancers, lovers, sons and mothers. But he also writes about their joy—in music, in the natural world, in each other. He gets to the bottom of a fundamental truth: that suffering and joy are not mutually exclusive. Over and over again, these poems insist (this is the most apt word I can come up with) on celebrating, and specifically on celebrating the kind of joy that is unique to blackness.

His skill as a poet is on full display here as well. The way he plays with the words black and white, how they weave in and out of his poems, and the way he uses them to describe the natural world, got me thinking about the way race (and racism) permeates everything in this country from government policy to the very words we use to describe the world around us. It’s especially brilliant in “Dream Variation”:

To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently
Dark like me–
That is my dream!

The poems in this book are angry and joyful, mundane and transcendent, some haunting and sad, some bursting with an explosive happiness that I could feel, like music, radiating off the page. The mess of contradictory emotions and experiences makes the poems all the more relevant, all the more human. Grief mixes with joy mixes with anger mixes with unabashed celebration mixes with injustice and suffering mixes with simple, physical and worldly pleasures. These are big, messy human poems. I plan to steadily work my way through his published works of poetry; I can’t wait.

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