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