Wednesday, May 26, 2004

So what's the deal with all the Langston Hughes talk of late? Near the middle of Dubya's reign (sometime in 2002) I recall a reference to his wife reading a Hughes poem, and James Taranto in a Wall Street Journal editorial this week writes that "Langston Hughes, the poet who inspired John Kerry's new campaign slogan, 'Let America be America again,' turns out to be a favorite of communists." Pretty disgusting shit, almost worthy of the nutty but always entertaining Karl Rove. But Taranto apparently didn't get the White House memo that Hughes was cool with them and that he should stick to script. Hughes turns up on xtina.org (favorably) and a couple of other blog sites as well. This week alone I think I've heard or read the name Langston possibly a dozen times.

I'm reminded of a note in Eliot Weinberger's anthology American Poetry Since 1950:

"Hughes lived in the Soviet Union for some years, covered the Spanish Civil War as a journalist, and increasingly wrote prose; he would return to form, again in the 1950's, with Montage of a Dream Deferred - a work which, like all of Hughes' poetry, is inexplicably still primarily discussed in the context of African-American, and not American Modernist writing."

The point being, though Hughes has been co-opted at times by the Bushes and Kerrys of the world (and taken out of context to boot) I don't find him as sentimental as this would imply, nor do I think of him as the kind of sound-bite poet a candidate woud be looking for. This is powerful, Modernist stuff, not Maya Angelou. (Angelou was Clinton's poet, remember?) So how is it that Hughes has re-entered the political landscape over the last few years, considering his politics? Most remember the Harlem stanzas of Montage of a Dream Deferred, but not all that well, I have to conclude, when I re-read them at this moment. Sure, it begins somewhat harmlessly (by today's standards) with the now all-too-referenced "What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?", but punches you in the gut with the rest:

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?

If poems were dangerous (and I'm one who believes that they are not these days, unfortunately) politicians would cite Hughes about as much as they do Ginsberg. Which is to say not at all. Nader: "America...Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb." (applause)

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