21 October 2020
For Black History Month, we’re flooding our news feed with profiles of our black authors, past and present. In the fifth of the series, we take an excerpt from the multi-prizewinning young poet Kayo Chingonyi’s introduction to Langston Hughes’ Selected Poems, republished this year in our Classics series.
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THE SONG – AN INTRODUCTION TO LANGSTON HUGHES
It is appropriate that my first meeting with the work of Langston Hughes wasn’t in the pages of a book but in Gary Bartz’s rendition of ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’, a song I heard while listening to Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Show on Radio 1 sometime in the early 2000s, when, at fourteen or fifteen years old, it was my habit to record songs from the radio on to my favoured TDK D 90 Type 1 audio cassettes. I sat there, finger primed on the pause button and, when I heard the soaring notation, I let the pause button go to record what came next.
The words in the singer’s mouth had a swing not unlike someone walking down a street in Harlem, with that borough’s famous élan (though, don’t tell Brooklyn I said that). What did it mean to ‘know rivers’, I thought? So began my kinship with Langston; one of the enduring dialogues of my reading life. He was there at that xiii crucial point when my sense of self began taking shape and later, when I was an undergraduate in English Literature, searching the supplementary anthology of a module entitled ‘Introduction to Advanced Literary Studies’ for names I recognised, there he was again, like the nameless protagonist of his much anthologised poem speaking of continuity, ‘the/ flow of human blood in human veins’.
It would be remiss of me here to brush past the quieter poems in Hughes’s oeuvre, those that a volume such as this – reflecting the poems Hughes himself wished to preserve – brings into such sharp relief. I want, then, to offer my hand, dear reader, and take you for a walk around Langston’s poems.
There is an important sense in which Langston is a blues poet, and indeed many of the poems in this volume reflect that in their titles, but there is another part of the blues that Langston brought into his poems: an attunement to the nuances of spoken language and African-American vernacular English most especially:
They done took Cordelia
Out to stony lonesome ground.
Snow has friz me, sun has baked me.
Looks like between ’em
They done tried to make me
Stop laughin’, stop lovin’, stop livin’—