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Archive for the ‘Langston Hughes’ Category

my progenitor and my progeny

my progenitor and my progeny

I always have a lot to celebrate on Mother’s Day. My mother, 88 and still funny and sharp, is a woman I’d consider myself lucky to even know, much less to claim as mother. I’ve got four older sisters who mothered me each in their own way, a wonderful mother-in-law, and an aunt-in-law I love as my own.

 

That’s a lot of mothers. I’ve collected even more poems about mothers. I posted a few around town to celebrate and to give tribute to everyone who’s opened their heart to mother another human.

 

I started at a florist, where I left Julia Kasdorf’s poem, “What I Learned From My Mother.”

 

poem is leaning against green vase

poem is leaning against green vase

 

Because the beautiful last lines are a little blurred in the photograph, I’ll highlight them here.

Like a doctor, I learned to create

from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once

you know how to do this, you can never refuse.

To every house you enter, you must offer

healing, a chocolate cake you baked yourself,

the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.

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A cemetery (a favorite poem-elfing spot) seemed like a good spot for Ron Padgett’s “The Best Thing I Did.”

poem is on tree in foreground

poem is on tree in foreground

 

Truer words were never written:

The best thing I did

for my mother

was to outlive her

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In the tiny dressing room of Nordstrom Rack, I left two poems with a similar theme, Walter de la Mare’s “Full Circle,” and Anna Kamienska’s “Mother and Me.”

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I find de la Mare’s poem terrifying and sweet at once.

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Kamienska’s poem is simple and beautiful:

true understanding

is always silence.

 

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For mothering that never gets acknowledged, I left Maggie Anderson’s “Sonnet for Her Labor” in a discounted Mother’s Day card bin:

poem is in 50% off bin

poem is in 50% off bin

 

Laurel Mountain must not have had a Hallmark store.

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Another mother who’s lived a hard life is given a voice in Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son.” I left the poem in the football stands of a local high school, to offer a little encouragement to any youngster overwhelmed by difficulties.

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I’ve loved this poem for so long. I hope it finds its way to someone who needs it.

 

 

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Happy Mother’s Day!  Go forth and mother.

 

 

 

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Image 3

 

 

Harlem

by Langston 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?

 

Image 4

 

The poem I taped to the fence at Mt. Elliott Cemetery in Detroit and the poem I’ve copied directly into this blog are not the same. The first version of “Harlem” is the familiar one, but the second, taken from the Poetry Foundation, is probably the definitive text.  In print, the difference between an un-italicized last line and an italicized one seems a matter of style, but as I consider each version, that little difference takes on more substance. “Or does it explode?” sounds like a rhetorical question, in line with the other questions in the poem.   But “Or does it explode?”  sounds like a warning.

 

Although I had known Langston Hughes was an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a writer who suffered racial injustice and celebrated black culture, I had never read this particular poem in the context of race. I thought of the “dream deferred” as a universal experience, something that happens to all but the most self-actualized among us, the weight carried by the lawyer who wanted to be a singer-songwriter, the teacher who wanted to open a pastry shop.  The drying up, the festering, the rotting, the sagging, the exploding are the result of not following the advice in another Hughes’ poem (ever-popular during graduation season) called “Dreams”:

 

Hold fast to dreams,

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird,

That cannot fly.

 

But when I see, thanks to the italics, the barely contained frustration of that last line, the poem becomes political all at once, a protest against the limits imposed on the lives of black Americans. Somehow I had missed the implication of “deferred” in “dream deferred.”   Dreams fester and rot not because the dreamers have lost faith in their dreams or are too timid to make the leap, but because an outside force has deferred the dream.  There’s a chilly bureaucratic feel to deferred, as if someone stamped a stack of handwritten dreams with the dreaded word and passed the pile on to another desk.  Not now, not now.  Come back on Tuesday.

 

The other meaning of deferred—to submit to another’s wishes—is at work here too. How would it feel to have your dream deferred by someone you’re supposed to pay deference to?

 

Read in this light, I guess “Harlem” doesn’t really belong where I placed it.  The Mount Elliott Cemetery is a beautiful sanctuary in southeast Detroit originally built for Irish Catholics. I had passed by the cemetery after visiting the Solanus Casey Center across the street.  With the poem in my purse, taping it to the fence seemed like a pretty good idea at the time or at least convenient.  By the way, lots of famous Detroiters are buried here, including Beaubian, Campau, Chevrolet, and Hamtramck.  (If you’re interested in Detroit history, you’ll enjoy great blog called Night Train. Link here for Night Train’s post on the Mount Elliott Cemetery.

 

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was born in Missouri to a family whose ancestors included slaves and slave owners.  His parents divorced when he was young, and his father moved to Cuba and Mexico to escape racism and to get away from other black Americans, who he had come to dislike.  Hughes, on the other hand, embraced black culture, especially the lives of people he described as “workers, roustabouts, and singers, and job hunters on Lenox Avenue in New York, or Seventh Street in Washington or South State in Chicago—people up today and down tomorrow, working this week and fired the next, beaten and baffled, but determined not to be wholly beaten, buying furniture on the installment plan, filling the house with roomers to help pay the rent, hoping to get a new suit for Easter—and pawning that suit before the Fourth of July.” Later in his career he was criticized for “parading” working-class black characters who spoke in dialect, but his portrayals of those characters in poems, novels, and plays earned him the unofficial title of “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race.”

 

Before he found success as the first African-American to earn a living from his writing, Hughes worked as a sailor, a doorman, a waiter, a cook and a truck farmer.  He attended Columbia University and graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where his classmate was Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.

 

He published two autobiographies, several children’s books and wrote a popular column for the Chicago Defender for twenty years.  He died at age 65 of prostate cancer.

 

(Sorry I don’t have a picture of the poet.  I need to give myself an education on how to use images from the web on my blog.  Flickr has changed and I can’t seem to pull a picture of Hughes to use.  Also, WordPress won’t allow me to format the poem properly.  All lines following the first should be indented.)

 

 

 

 

 

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If you think, as I sometimes do when a particularly arcane poem shows up in my inbox courtesy of the Academy of American Poets’ poem-a-day feature, that poetry is written by and for the same kind of people who prefer wasabi truffles to straightforward chocolate caramels; or if you think that classic poetry has as much relevance to your life as the owners’ manual to a steam-powered lawnmower, it’s time to meet Jeffrey, poetry declaimer extraordinaire.

 

IDSC_0005 by bethaleh first heard about Jeffrey from a newsletter put out by Detroit’s Capuchin Soup Kitchen.  In CSK’s lunch and dinner line, Jeffrey recites poetry from memory for the other guests.  I watched a video of his performance and I was enchanted.  So I tracked him down to speak with him over the phone.

 

Jeffrey’s poetry passion was born out of tragedy and boredom.  In 1988 he was hit by a moving car.  He was in a coma for ten days with a traumatic brain injury.  He recovered but in the years that followed he was homeless.  With little to do on the streets all day, Jeffrey went to the library.  He happened upon a book with Langston Hughes’ poem “Gods.”

 

Jeffrey never liked poetry when he was young.  He didn’t even like English class.  He left school after tenth grade.  But Hughes’ poem he liked.  He liked it so much, he wrote it down.  Then he read it over and over till he memorized it.  He recited the poem as he walked down the street or rode the bus.   “It was something to do,” he explained.

 

Here’s the poem that first inspired him:

Langston Hughes 6 by Ohio Center for the BookGods

by Langston Hughes

The ivory gods,

And the ebony gods,

And the gods of diamond and jade,

Sit silently on their temple shelves

While the people

Are afraid.

Yet the ivory gods,

And the ebony gods,

And the gods of diamond-jade,

Are only silly puppet gods

That the people themselves

Have made.

 

That was in 2000.  Since then Jeffrey is no longer homeless and has added to his poetry repertoire.  I asked him how he selects the poems he memorizes.  It turns out his criteria is the same criteria I use in selecting which poems to poem-elf, that is:

  1. How much sense does the poem make?
  2. Does it tell the truth?

The difference in our selection process is that length doesn’t matter to Jeffrey and I always choose the shortest poems I can find.

 

By way of demonstrating the kind of poem he’s drawn to, Jeffrey recited “Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall (1914-2000).  Here’s the first two verses:

 

“Mother dear, may I go downtown

Instead of out to play,

And march the streets of Birmingham

In a Freedom March today?”

 

“No, baby, no, you may not go,

For the dogs are fierce and wild,

And clubs and hoses, guns and jails

Aren’t good for a little child.”

 

His delivery, even over the phone, was powerful.  When he finished, the hairs on my arm stood on end.  You can read the poem in its entirety (and surprise ending) here.

 

Watch Jeffrey’s performance yourself on youtube.  Please do.  This man deserves an audience.  Wouldn’t it be great if the number of views on these videos jumped out of the teens into the hundreds?

 

Here’s Jeffrey reciting Edgar Allan Poe’s “El Dorado” and Maya Angelou’s “Preacher, Don’t Send Me.”  Link here to hear “A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  And here for another Longfellow poem, “I Shot an Arrow into the Air.”

 

I confess that before I heard Jeffrey recite these poems, I didn’t like any of them.  The dramatic poems of Longfellow and Poe were too much trouble to plow through, and the non-prose writings of Maya Angelou sometimes bored me.  But Jeffrey has won me over. He brings the poems alive in a way I never would have experienced just by reading.  With his inflections and gestures he inhabits each poem and makes even the oldest verses sound contemporary and relevant.

 

Jeffrey has a gift to share.  Click and you’ll not only enjoy his gifts, you’ll give a gift back to him.

 

Kudos, Jeffrey!

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