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For several decades many readers of modern American poetry have believed that Countee Cullen was a lesser poet than Langston Hughes. This judgment is rather sharply at odds with how the two poets stood relative to each other during the Harlem Renaissance. Large numbers of readers in that period — from the elite to the newly enlarging community of “common readers” in the African American population — admired both men. Hughes himself described his status as that of the “poet low rate,” punning on the unofficial title of “poet laureate” which he gladly ceded to Cullen. The joke at once mocked the notion of laurels, and yet demonstrated that such categories had their social and literary critical function. But despite all the distortions (more of which in a moment) involved in assessing laurels and their correct bestowal, we can learn something about African American poetry and its merits and context by rehearsing the difference as well as the affinities, elective and natural, between the two men. More… “The Poets Low Rate”

Charles Molesworth has published a number of books on modern literature. His most recent book is The Capitalist and the Critic: J.P. Morgan, Roger Fry and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (U. of Texas).
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On February 1, 2016, the anniversary of Langston Hughes’s 1902 birth, the poet achieved a 21st-century mark of distinction: his name trended on Twitter. Over at the music streaming service Spotify, 8,099 listeners in the past 30 days had played recordings of Hughes reciting his poetry. On YouTube, since being posted a little over a year ago, a reading Hughes did at UCLA shortly before his death had been played 12,226 times: amazing for an 85-minute, not-exactly-hi-fi, audio-only recording from 1967.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. As an African American icon Hughes is beloved, and as a writer Hughes has lodged his handful of poems permanently in the public mind. This has been true since 1921 when his first published poem, written when he was still a teenager, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” caused a sensation in black America. It remained true, as observed recently by W. Jason Miller, when Hughes’s poem from 1948, eventually known as “Dream Deferred,” was instrumental to the imagery and language of Martin Luther King’s 1967 “A Christmas Sermon on Peace.” And Hughes’s centrality was affirmed yet again in 2004 when presidential candidate John Kerry made use of the 1938 poem “Let America be America Again.” All of this is to note that, along with Whitman, Dickinson, and Frost, Hughes is arguably one of the few marquee names in American poetry.
More… “The Hughes Blues”

Richard Abowitz is the editor of The Smart Set. Get in touch at rabowitz@drexel.edu.
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