Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Friday, December 09, 2005

Langston Hughes--Words and Rhythms Facing Down the Tragic

[gary daily col. 16 May 12, 2002]

Put this on your “To Do” list for next week, better yet, for tomorrow. Stop by the post office and buy a sheet of Black Heritage stamps sporting the picture of Langston Hughes. It’s a first class stamp and well worth owning even though the 34-cent piece of postage will soon be gone. But rest assured that the writings of the man on that stamp will never be replaced.

Langston Hughes became famous in literary circles in the 1920s during the days of the Harlem Renaissance. As important as this artist was through the decades up until his death in 1967, it is only a century after Langston Hughes’s birth on Feb. 1, 1902, that his significance is being comprehended, appreciated and celebrated.

Is it true that almost everyone knows or at least has heard and can recognize something written by Langston Hughes? I would think so. Here’s a poet some say even anticipated rap music. He creatively mined the rich resources of African American work songs, spirituals, and jazz. His poems could magically capture the spirit and swaying moan of the blues--perseverance in the form of words and rhythms facing down the tragic and unfairness of life. What contemporary musician of any stripe would refuse a pedigree linking their work to such powerful sources?

Here’s an excerpt from the Hughes poem “Jazztet Muted.” The “Muted” of the title is descriptive of its pace and tone. Yet it’s easy to imagine a full throated voice of the hip hop nation “sampling” Hughes and sending the story and message of this poem out the megaphones of open car windows.

SUDDENLY CATCHING FIRE
FROM THE WING TIP OF A MATCH TIP
ON THE BREATH OF ORNETTE COLEMAN.
IN NEON TOMBS THE MUSIC
FROM JUKEBOX JOINTS IS LAID
AND FREE-DELIVERY TV SETS
ON GRAVESTONE DATES ARE PLAYED.

* * * * *

WHERE THE PRESSURE OF

THE BLOOD

IS SLIGHTLY HIGHER–

DUE TO SMOULDERING

SHADOWS

THAT SOMETIMES TURN TO FIRE.

When this poem was written in 1961, those capital letters may be “Muted” beneath a surface of cool jazz–but Hughes’s words still shouted with unrestrained concern and energy. I said the man was a magician, didn’t I?

And doesn’t it all resonate with what may be Hughes’s most famous lines?

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

* * * * *

Or does it explode?

This only lightly touches on a small edge of the vast monument that is Langston Hughes’s artistic production. He sets the mind racing and working; the emotions despairing and exulting. Imagine opening up and taking in the whole of his gift: his novels, plays, short stories, essays, autobiographies, newspaper columns, children's books, opera librettos and translations of poets ranging from the Senegalese Léopold Senghor to the Spaniard Federico García Lorca.

Fittingly, on the centennial of his birth, the University of Missouri Press has undertaken to publish the complete works of Langston Hughes in a 17 volume edition. So, by all means buy yourself that Black Heritage stamp. Then head for a library or book store and start reading the work of this giant.

* * * * * * *

Two important pieces of “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” news: The discussion of Snow Falling on Cedars which was canceled due to a snow storm has been re-scheduled for Wednesday, May 15. Scott Clark will lead TWO discussions, 2 p.m. and 7 p. m., at the Vigo County Public Library. Drawings for “IF ALL” book bags will be held at each discussion. And the on-air news staff at WTWO-2 has taken on the exciting task of an on air discussion of the “IF ALL” book. This will usually take place on Friday nights. Congratulations WTWO-2.

And why can’t other businesses and organizations in the community make the “IF ALL” book available and set aside time for a lunch hour discussion? Send me the word if you’re trying something like this and how it is working out.

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