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Callaloo 25.1 (2002) 45-65
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News from Heaven
Vernacular Time in Langston Hughes's Ask Your Mama
Before the long hot summer there was Langston Hughes. The summer was for white men. Through the long cold winter, which was for black men, there was Langston Hughes. Langston Hughes, soul poet of the soul, black poet of black America, poet laureate of Harlem and, ex-officio, of all America, speaks here with double power in his own reading of the jazz-poem, "ASK YOUR MAMA."
--Nathanial Montague, Liner Notes to The Black
Verse: Langston Hughes: 12 MOODS FOR JAZZ
Whatever the general fate of poetry in this postmodern age of prose, there can be no doubt that the shade of Langston Hughes still walks among us. Kevin Young's very recent elegy, which appeared in The New Yorker in early 1999, treats Hughes's death (in 1967) as a matter of communal immediacy. He makes it a metonym for the long political stasis that has followed the struggles of the 1960s: "Been tired here / feelin' low down / Real / tired here / since you quit town / . . . . We got no more promise / We only got ain't." Young begins his elegy in the blues idiom Hughes made famous, and ends in an evangelical register, imploring Hughes to "send / all heaven's news." But in the middle of the poem there is a parodic Descent to the Underworld where Young contends with the most obvious fragments of Hughes's reputation:
us of hell--
Mr. Shakespeare in Harlem
Mr. Theme for English B. (44) [End Page 45]
As the copyright icon indicates, Hughes is not simply a famous poet; he is the famous poet. The suggestion of commodification reflects Young's frustration that Hughes has become his reputation; it may also refer to Hughes's own scrupulous cultivation of that reputation. But its fullest significance lies in its riff on Hughes's proverbial status as "Poet Laureate of the Negro Race," an honorific that emerged early in his career and has endured ever since, both among scholars and the more general reading public. 1
The honorific is no less true for being proverbial. Hughes is Shakespeare in Harlem, not simply because one of his volumes announces that desire in its title, but because he has achieved an analogous centrality. We can find it in his importance to subsequent poets and in the cultural diffusion of the various forms of his wisdom, from the Simple stories to the widely anthologized "Theme for English B." Excerpted from its original setting in Montage for a Dream Deferred, and often mistakenly assumed to reflect Hughes's own abbreviated career at Columbia, this poem has become, among other things, a staple subject of college composition assignments. Young's paradoxical association of poetic achievement, communal identity, and death draws on one of the more venerable impulses in African-American tradition. Previous to Hughes's own work one could cite such otherwise distinct poems as James Weldon Johnson's "O Black and Unknown Bards," Paul Laurence Dunbar's "Alexander Crummell-Dead," and James Corrothers's "Paul Laurence Dunbar." 2 Nor is this impulse confined to this tradition. In fact, it constitutes one of the most archaic resources of all Anglophone poetry.
The lament for great poets now lost was a hallmark of the later Middle Ages. Perhaps the most famous instance is William Dunbar's widely anthologized Lament for the Makers, with its haunting Latin refrain, Timor mortis conturbat me [The fear of death confounds me]. These laments formed part of the "matrix" of laureation, a cluster of signifying practices which, as both Seth Lerer and Richard Helgerson have shown, constituted the center of the literary system of late medieval and early modern Britain (Lerer; Helgerson 14-64). With their insistence on personal loss, these laments had the practical effect of consolidating the poetic reputation of their subjects. Moreover, the connection they drew between lost poet and the fate of the community rendered poetic reputation a source of political unity. Dunbar, a...