The radical art of Langston Hughes


By: Hank Kalet

I live here, too.

I want freedom

Just as you.

— Langston Hughes


   Poetry is a radical art.
   In an age of advertising and spin, when language is twisted and contorted to sell soap and perfectly coiffed political candidates, poetry is a necessary corrective.
   It is language at its most vibrant, its most energetic, its truest expression. It cuts through the gloss and glam, cuts straight to the quick, to the soul.
   National Poetry Month began on Monday. This year, the annual event celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of Langston Hughes, the great poet of the Harlem Renaissance and an exemplar of this radical spirit.
   His poetry offers a remarkable fusion of jazz, blues and verse, growing from a commitment to what he considered the native art forms of black America. His lines are tight, condensed and musical, but full of the mind at work, of the heart and the intellect functioning at their fullest, highest powers.
   Hughes, who died in 1967, was born in Joplin, Mo., and spent time in Mexico, Africa and Soviet Russia. He was a political radical who explored socialism, a harsh critic of racial segregation who believed in racial pride and artistic independence (outlined in his 1926 essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" in The Nation magazine).
   According to a biographical sketch in "The Oxford Companion to African American Literature" written by Arnold Rampersad, Hughes’ literary ancestors were Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, two poets with grand democratic visions; Paul Laurence Dunbar, a black poet who wrote both in dialect and standard verse; and Claude McKay, "a radical socialist who also wrote accomplished lyric poetry." Mr. Rampersad writes that "Sandburg, who Hughes later called "my guiding star," was decisive in leading him toward free verse and a radically democratic modernist aesthetic."
   "I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins," writes Hughes in "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." He knew rivers and history, the long history of slavery and American racism, the travels and travails of the black man across the pages of history, across the oceans, contained in a single, 13-line poem.
   "My soul has grown deep like the rivers."
   Hughes made the depiction of black life — especially lower-class black life — his primary focus, which left him open to harsh attacks from the black press and others who saw him as demeaning his subjects, according to Mr. Rampersad.
   Hughes is more than just a great black poet, of course. He is one of America’s greatest poets, a poet of democracy and liberty, of hope and anger, a poet who continually asked America to live up to its promise, the promise of equality — as he writes in "Let America Be America Again":
"Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
"The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
"We, the people, must redeem
"The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
"The mountains and the endless plain —
"All, all the stretch of these great green states —
"And make America again!"
   For more information on the Academy of American Poets, sponsor of National Poetry Month, or National Poetry Month go to The poetry of Langston Hughes can be found on the Web site.
Hank Kalet is managing editor of The South Brunswick Post, a sister paper of The Lawrence Ledger.