Stay tuned to our new posts and updates! Click to join us on WhatsApp L&C-Whatsapp & Telegram telegram Channel
L&C-Silhouette Subscribe
The L&C-Silhouette Basket
L&C-Silhouette Basket
A hand-picked basket of cherries from the world of most talked about books and popular posts on creative literature, reviews and interviews, movies and music, critiques and retrospectives ...
to enjoy, ponder, wonder & relish!
 
Support LnC-Silhouette. Great reading for everyone, supported by readers. SUPPORT

How To Enjoy a Poem: Taking the example of Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” or “A Dream Deferred .”

May 8, 2015 | By

We enjoy a poem by looking at its author, the relevant biographical material, the context, the form and structure, the figures of speech, the musical devices, the imagery, the style and the content.

Langston Hughes House in Harlem

Langston Hughes House in Harlem

To enjoy a poem one has to first of all choose one carefully. Today I hope to convince you that reading poetry is one of the most pleasurable things on earth and gives us ” jouissance” by looking at a recent favourite of mine, namely “Harlem” or “A Dream Deferred” by Langston Hughes.

Harlem

BY LANGSTON HUGHES

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
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?

Langston Hughes, “Harlem” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes. Reprinted with the permission of Harold Ober Associates Incorporated.

Source: Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (Random House Inc., 1990)

Having chosen the poem you like, it may be good to find out a bit about the AUTHOR. Here it helps us to know that Langston Hughes is African American and was influenced by jazz, for instance. He was a key figure in what is known as the Harlem Renainssance. This makes his style slightly jazzy. We also need to know about the CONTEXT which is supplied to us by the TITLE and the ‘sub-title.’ The poem was written in 1951, against the so called American Dream that did not come true for the African Americans. Harlem was a slum and the background of poverty due to racism is something that we cannot escape mentioning while speaking of this poem. Someone coming from such a background has a dream like Martin Luther King Jr., to rise above the squalid sordidness, crime, ill- treatment and gender discrimination found rampantly in such ‘hoods as a result of centuries-long racial abuse.  Hughes asks what happens to someone who has such a dream if it is neither fulfilled nor denied, but delayed, leaving one in uncertainty as to whether the outcome will be positive or negative. It is, in other words, a Waiting for Godotesque or Catch 22esque situation.

We can then move on to noticing the FORM and STRUCTURE of the poem. It is not lyrical. It is in the form of the catechism, but subversively, meaning in the catechism one asks a question and gives an answer  – an example would be “Who is God?” the answer to which is “God is Love” – but here the main question only leads to a further set of questions, ironically.  This makes it an ‘interrogative poem’ like the Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett’s brief and beautiful poem from his novel Watt’s Addenda that goes thus:

who may tell the tale
of the old man?
weigh absence in a scale?
mete want with a span?
the sum assess
of the world’s woes?
nothingness
in words enclose?

‘Harlem’ is also a very short list -like poem, like Beckett’s, structurally speaking.

Looking at the form and structure leads on to looking also at the FIGURES OF SPEECH used in the poem. There are two mainly, namely; the simile and the metaphor. What is amazing here is how Hughes beautifully employs the simile five times, a figure of speech considered lesser than the metaphor by many poets, critics and editors in power and effect, but only to make the metaphor when it comes hit us like a sledgehammer. I have never seen the simile used so well, in my honest opinion, therefore, to create this contrapuntal far-reaching effect.

Let’s look at it a little closer. The “dream deferred” may be
“like a raisin in the sun…”
“like a sore…”
“like rotten meat…”
“like a syrupy sweet…”
“like a heavy load…”
– and finally comes the hammer blow of the metaphor about the dream:
“Or does “it” ‘explode?’ ”

Hughes, like Kolatkar whom I quoted in my previous article Canons, is different from the Beats and Namdeo Dhasal. Hughes is out to prove that he can write the well-made poem better than those who discriminate against him on the basis of colour  and in English that is as good as the ones who are privileged by race as is Kolatkar who is proving that he can write an English poem as well and as well crafted as any Britisher or Movement poet can in poems like the ones found in his collection Jejuri.  Dhasal too, though different in approach, makes the same underlying point that being Dalit and discriminated against by the so-called upper castes will not and cannot stop him from being one of the greatest poets India has seen, in his powerful poems like the one I quoted in the previous article.

We go on to MUSICAL DEVICES or SOUND. Here we see, of course, the ‘consonantal alliteration’ in “dream deferred” and “syrupy sweet” and the use of a lot of d’s, s’s and r’s to suggest uncertainty but the exciting part, the part that makes Hughes not just an imitator but a master is his use of the rhyme scheme in his poem. I spoke earlier of how he was influenced by jazz, the devil’s music according to some, the kind of prejudice and ignorance he fought against along with others like him, and it creeps in here in the length of the lines and the odd way in which he arranges the stanzas and the rhymes. It is purely like jazz. The first stanza has one long line, like a saxophone riff accompanying the singer and the second one has seven (or four plus three in some versions of the text I have seen, as two stanzas) as if the double bass, and the drums and the piano have joined in to give it a full sound and then there is a petering out or fading away into a couplet, to end with a sudden drum roll of a single  sentence abruptly. As if this is not odd enough we have a ‘rhyme scheme’ of a, b, c, d, c, e, f, e, g, h, h! This is fantastic or deadly. Easy to get an idea about if one loves jazz but if classically attuned it can be bewildering unless you listen to people like Ives and Debussy! So much for Hughes’ unique jazzy Afro-American STYLE of which he was the innovator, in his own distinctive VOICE with its unmistakable Tone!

We come to IMAGERY. In this short explosive poem, explosive in more ways than one, Hughes employs visual, olfactory, gustatory, auditory, kinetic and organic imagery.

The visual image is that of the raisin drying up in the sun.
The olfactory, of rotten meat.
The gustatory, of the syrupy sweet. This can also be considered tactile, at one remove.
The kinetic, of the festering sore that runs. Yucky but apt in the context of a failed dream that can turn sour.
The auditory, in the explosion.
And the organic in how it refers to racism covertly without naming it.
To be honest, I have never found any single short poem or poet who can bring in all seven types of IMAGERY in such a little space, before or after.

And the THEME or the SENSE or MEANING which we get by analyzing the CONTENT?: Universal, general, particular and specific. Who has not known what it is to dream and not get or get or to wait anxiously for the dream to become realized, leading either to an explosion of joy or of anger, suffering, pain, discontentment and hurt?

Especially if one comes from oppressed, disadvantaged, underprivileged or under-served communities and backgrounds like those in or that of Harlem and other places closer home.

The theme reminds me of these lines by Bob Dylan from a song of his called Every Grain of Sand on the Shot Of Love album that also refers to Blake and the Bible, poignantly : “I am hanging in the balance/ of the reality of man/like every sparrow falling/ like every grain of sand.”

Bob Dylan

To sum up: We enjoy a poem by looking at its author, the relevant biographical material, the context, the form and structure, the figures of speech, the musical devices/sound, the imagery, the style/his voice(its tone) and the meaning or theme or sense  –  in other words the content – the poem makes. This is for starters.

To tie up my article today with the previous one and some other relevant thoughts connected to today’s Indian Writing in English scene, this is surely a canonical poem, though so teeny weeny and itsy bitsy, due to the title and content that gives it a lot of weight though nothing is said per se, directly, in the poem about Harlem. Yet a lot is evoked!  While we live in chaotic times my point is that while I am against canons as such, except as stated earlier for individual ones, if at all we start on canon making which is different from cataloguing all and sundry who write, I reiterate that the poems included in it must have the kind of excellence this one shows in all departments and not be praised just for being Indian or being written by someone from a majority community  or being in English or anything.

I feel it is here that it becomes really difficult to hand out accolades to those writing Indian English poetry today. But I hope to hand out a few all the same in coming editions of this column which I hope you will keep reading in that expectation.

DIY NOW. Enjoy your own chosen poem!

References:

(Poetry Foundation, Hughes, Harlem)
Bob Dylan:” Every Grain of Sand”

The opinions shared by the writer is his personal opinion and does not reflect the opinion of Learning and Creativity Magazine.

Read Canons , the first article by Dr Ampat Koshy for his Literature DIY Column, also to get the continuity.

Dr Koshy A. V. is presently an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Jazan University, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He has written, co-written and co-edited many books of criticism, fiction and poetry to his credit with authors like A.V. Varghese, Gorakhnath Gangane, Angel Meredith, Madhumita Ghosh, Zeenath Ibrahim, Rukhaya MK and Bina Biswas, among others, and one of them, a solo effort and pamphlet, 'A Treatise on Poetry for Beginners' was reprinted once as 'Art of Poetry.' He is a Pushcart Poetry Prize nominee (2012), and four times Best Poem winner in Destiny Poets UK ICOP (2013, 2014, 2018, 2019) and he was thrice featured in Camel Saloon’s The Hump for best poem/editor’s pick. Even as a child he won the Shankar's International Award for writing, at the age of six or seven. He is a reputed critic and expert on Samuel Beckett, having done his Ph.D on him as well as having written a book on him, "Samuel Beckett's English Poetry", besides being a literary theoretician. His other books include "Wake Up, India: Essays for Our Times", co-authored with Dr Bina Biswas, and "Mahesh Dattani's Plays: Staging the Invisibles," research essays by many collected and co-edited with Bina Biswas, "The Significant Anthology" that he edited with Reena Prasad and Michele Baron, a collection of his stories "Scream and Other Urbane Legends" published by Lifi, and an anthology or collection of poetry "Igniting Key," with Bina Biswas and Pramila Khadun. He has edited or co-edited many books including A Man Outside History by Naseer Ahmed Nasir and Inklinks: An Anthology by PoetsCorner and Umbilical Chords with Dr Madan Gandhi, Dr Santosh Bakaya , Himali Narang and Vineetha Mekkoth. He instituted the Reuel International Literary Prize in 2014 for excellence in writing and runs an Autism NPO with his wife Anna Gabriel. The first Reuel prize was given to Dr Santosh Bakaya. He administers with the help of others the literary group Rejected Stuff on Facebook, also known as THE SIGNIFICANT LEAGUE. His poems have been studied in a research paper by Dr Zeenath Ibrahim and by Kiriti Sengupta in The Dazzling Bards and translated into Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, German, Bengali, Tamil, Spanish, Arabic and Malayalam. He won World Bank’s Urgent Evoke and participated in European Union’s Edgeryders. He has been interviewed extensively by people like Gina McKnight. He has other degrees like a Dip.Ed, diplomas, certificates and awards or prizes to his credit including best researcher and academic 2018 in Jazan University, besides his UGC and doctorate on Beckett. He attributes everything to God’s grace and the prayers and good wishes of his loved ones and friends. His latest books are "Allusions to Simplicity" and "Birds of Different Feathers", both collections of poetry like his first one "Figs". He is working on ten books now, one being on Bob Dylan. He has a certificate in Masters of World Literature from HarvardX, USA, earned in 2019, and a certificate from Nanowrimo USA in 2018, besides completing 2019 NAPOWRIMO, USA. He also co-edited with Reena Prasad, Michele Baron and Anna Gabriel "Silhouette I and II featuring Eternal Links", and contributed to "Eyes Bloodshot: Hallowe'en Tales" edited by Firdaus Parvez, both short story anthologies. His other book is "Wrighteings: In Media Res", a collection of essays, and he has contributed to international magazines, both online and print, and poetry and short story anthologies aplenty. He was a columnist for Niamh Clune's Plum Tree, Ireland, and has been published by Barry Mowles, Brian Wrixon, Bezine, Madswirl, Spillwords, Wagon, Oddball magazine, Setu, Tuck magazine, the Pangolin Review, OPA ,Metaworker, Atunis Galaktike, Nothing, No one, Nowhere, Episteme, Virogray etc. He also has many research papers to his credit in places like Langlit, uncollected as yet. He has had retrospectives of his work done by Duane Vorhees and Glory Sasikala in duanesnewpoetree.blogspot.com and Glomag respectively. He recently achieved ten thousand reads on Research Gate for his research articles on display there.
All Posts of Dr Ampat Varghese Koshy

Hope you enjoyed reading...

... we have a small favour to ask. More people are reading and supporting our creative, informative and analytical posts than ever before. And yes, we are firmly set on the path we chose when we started... our twin magazines Learning and Creativity and Silhouette Magazine (LnC-Silhouette) will be accessible to all, across the world.

We are editorially independent, not funded, supported or influenced by investors or agencies. We try to keep our content easily readable in an undisturbed interface, not swamped by advertisements and pop-ups. Our mission is to provide a platform you can call your own creative outlet and everyone from renowned authors and critics to budding bloggers, artists, teen writers and kids love to build their own space here and share with the world.

When readers like you contribute, big or small, it goes directly into funding our initiative. Your support helps us to keep striving towards making our content better. And yes, we need to build on this year after year. Support LnC-Silhouette with a little amount - and it only takes a minute. Thank you

Support LnC-Silhouette

Creative Writing

Got a poem, story, musing or painting you would like to share with the world? Send your creative writings and expressions to editor@learningandcreativity.com

Learning and Creativity publishes articles, stories, poems, reviews, and other literary works, artworks, photographs and other publishable material contributed by writers, artists and photographers as a friendly gesture. The opinions shared by the writers, artists and photographers are their personal opinion and does not reflect the opinion of Learning and Creativity- emagazine. Images used in the posts (not including those from Learning and Creativity's own photo archives) have been procured from the contributors themselves, public forums, social networking sites, publicity releases, free photo sites such as Pixabay, Pexels, Morguefile, etc and Wikimedia Creative Commons. Please inform us if any of the images used here are copyrighted, we will pull those images down.

10 thoughts on “How To Enjoy a Poem: Taking the example of Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” or “A Dream Deferred .”

  • deepsmenon7

    Dr. Ampat Koshy, this was a truly illuminating article on the reasons to enjoy poetry. The poem chosen is such an evocative one, garnished with an amazing use of similes! Could I share this on my timeline, please? Thank you!

  • santosh

    how delightfully the author has analysed such a beautiful poem- my favourite too! Needs to be read by students of literature . My daughter, an English hons student, is so excited that she plans to make all her friends read it…..kudos to the writer for this erudite, article. Yes , congrats too, to the team at L and C for publishing such intellectually stimulating and enlightening articles….craving for more.

  • ravi shanker

    The article is quite illuminating. Thank you. I was reading the poem for the first time.

    A minor detail. Breaking the `interrogation’ format, the poem suddenly veers to ‘Maybe it just sags
    like a heavy load.’ To me, it seems jarring. Was it a compulsion to express the load of suppression more explicitly than needed in a reply-format?

    1. Dr Ampat Varghese Koshy Post author

      Although put as a statement, to me the tone seems conspiratorially interrogative but in a friendly manner here too, as if taking the reader more into confidence, or as an aside that implies questioning still but to the self. It does not jar for me but suggests, by referring to a nursery rhyme used by children sung after playing a prank on others whereby they put something light on another person’s head without that person knowing it and then mock that person, ironically, that the community Hughes belongs to is carrying a load placed on them by others and not taken up voluntarily or one their own and here in contrast to the game he children play the load really is heavy like what the Egyptians placed on the Jews who were their slaves in Biblical times and the slave-masters did to their imported slaves in America’s deep south.

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    Today’s Motivation

    <div class=at-above-post addthis_tool data-url=https://learningandcreativity.com/motivational-quotes-5/></div>Sands of time do not stand on, Stage by stage life moves on.......Life is ever-moving, ever changing; a progressive-cum-dynamic process.<!-- AddThis Advanced Settings above via filter on get_the_excerpt --><!-- AddThis Advanced Settings below via filter on get_the_excerpt --><!-- AddThis Advanced Settings generic via filter on get_the_excerpt --><!-- AddThis Share Buttons above via filter on get_the_excerpt --><!-- AddThis Share Buttons below via filter on get_the_excerpt --><div class=at-below-post addthis_tool data-url=https://learningandcreativity.com/motivational-quotes-5/></div><!-- AddThis Share Buttons generic via filter on get_the_excerpt -->
    Sands of time do not stand on, Stage by stage life moves on.......Life is ever-moving, ever changing; a progressive-cum-dynamic process.