The Poetry of Langston Hughes
Although African-American writer Langston Hughes wrote in every literary genre, his poetry reveals much about his picture of what it was like to be black in America in the first part of the twentieth century. The tone of his poems, like “Mother to Son,” “The Weary Blues,” and “Saturday Night” are different from each other. However, a factor that unifies all three poems is the lyrical nature of the words; each poem captures an aspect of life, using rhythm and music to depict the different situations and attitudes of the characters within. The musicality of Hughes’s poems is designed to create an emotional link between the reader and the people described in the poems.
Hughes’s poem, “Mother to Son,” has the most conversational tone of the three poems. The speaker is, as the title says, a mother who wants to give a message about life to her son. Her message is inspirational. Life is like a stairway, but she says, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” (2). Though life is hard, she does not want her son to give up, and uses herself as an example of the strength she knows he has to keep going through tough times. The most lyrical aspect of this poem is Hughes’s use of repetition. Lines four through six, ten through twelve, and line twenty all begin with the word “and.” The word “don’t” is repeated in likes fourteen, fifteen, and seventeen. The word “still” is repeated in lines eighteen and ninteteen. The phrase, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” occurs first as line two and ends the poem on line twenty. Sibilance is used throughout the poem with words like “crystal,” “stair,” “tacks,” “splinters,” and “still.” This use of repetition of words, phrases, and sounds gives this free verse poem unity. Although it appears to be like conversation, this repetition gives the mother’s words a lyrical quality; Hughes uses this musical voice to strengthen the emotional effect for the reader reading about a mother’s wish to inspire strength in her child.
Hughes’s poem, “The Weary Blues,” is explicitly a poem about music. The speaker of the poem is describing watching a black man play the piano and sing blues music. Although the poem is literally about music, the words themselves are also very lyrical. It is as if the speaker is trying to sing along with the blues player with his words. Hughes uses poetic devices like consonance, alliteration, sibilance, rhyme, meter, and repetition with the voice of the speaker to show readers the essence of the music he witnesses. For example, he says, “Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,/ Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon” (1-2). Drowning and drowsy are examples of alliteration and consonance, drowsy and syncopated are examples of sibilance, and tune and croon are examples of rhyme. Like the mother, this man playing the blues finds that life is tough, but instead of giving other people a message about being steadfast, he is playing the piano as a way to put his “troubles on the shelf” (22). In the poem, life is in contrast to death, which is when the man will finally know peace. Hughes closes the poem with the line, “He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead,” by which he implies that through the playing of blues music, the man as attained some peace represented by the deathlike sleep (35). The importance of music is demonstrated both by this type of description and symbolism as well as the poetic devices Hughes uses throughout. Hughes’s description and poetic devices help the reader to become emotionally involved in the scene, to feel as if they were there, too, hearing the music.
Hughes’s poem, “Saturday Night,” is very lyrical because of the poetic devices used. If spoken aloud, it is easy to discern that this poem’s meter is written to be said in a sing-song manner, almost like a nursery rhyme or cheer. Although a drum is mentioned, this poem is less explicitly about music than “The Weary Blues.” Like the gambling, drinking, and dancing described, the music is a part of life Charlie and Sadie are living. Charlie and Sadie could represent any man and woman who are trying to find ways to escape from life through partying and any other means available. Unlike the man playing the piano in “The Weary Blues,” Sadie and Charles are not using music to deal with their troubles but to escape from them. “An’ you’s a long time/ Dead/ When you is/ Dead, too” chants the speaker (17-20). These people are not living life to the fullest, though they may appear to be, because their spirits are dead, drained away by distractions like drinking, gambling, and prostitution. Hughes demonstrates that sometimes music is not a cure or respite, but an escape from life. The sing-song rhythm of the poem and its nursery rhyme feel allows Hughes to connect to his readers with an emotionally familiar feeling. Readers may find the emotional effect is that they know people just like this, or the childish tone can also relate the idea that people who try to escape from life altogether never quite grow up or make progress.
Each poem shows a different aspect of life, although life is never easy, and music is a vehicle that allows readers to understand that part of life. Hughes’s lyrical verse as well as his explicit references to music provides a thread that runs through the core message of all of these poems, that music is an important part of African-American heritage. Whether it is inspiring, a respite, or an escape, music in all its forms offers an emotional connection that helps define part of America itself.
Hughes, Langston. “Mother To Son.” Literature and the Writing Process, 9th ed. Eds. Linda Coleman, Susan X. Day, Robert Funk, & Elizabeth McMahan. Pearson/Prentice, 2011.
Hughes, Langston. “Saturday Night.” Literature and the Writing Process, 9th ed. Eds. Linda Coleman, Susan X. Day, Robert Funk, & Elizabeth McMahan. Pearson/Prentice, 2011.
Hughes, Langston. “The Weary Blues.” Literature and the Writing Process, 9th ed. Eds. Linda Coleman, Susan X. Day, Robert Funk, & Elizabeth McMahan. Pearson/Prentice, 2011.