Callaloo 25.4 (2002) 1145-1175
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Listening To What The Ear Demands
Langston Hughes and His Critics
Meta DuEwa Jones
Few doubt the significance of Langston Hughes' presence in 20th-century American literature. But how is this presence accounted for in criticism of his poetry? The Harlem Renaissance novelist, Jessie Fauset, authored one of the earliest reviews of Hughes' debut collection, The Weary Blues (1926). In the Crisis magazine, Fauset praises Hughes' blues-based and jazz-influenced poems for significantly addressing "universal subject[s] served Negro-style," adding that "while I am no great lover of any dialect I hope heartily that Mr. Hughes will give us many more" of comparable poems (Contemporary Reviews 61).Fauset's ambivalence concerning Hughes' use of dialect may seem ironic, considering that many succeeding critics praised his faithful representations of Black vernacular speech as one of his writing's hallmark features. Yet her emphasis on Hughes' race and its implicit relationship to his poems' representative content and style reflects the nature of much subsequent Hughes criticism. For example, Walter Farrell and Patricia A. Johnson remark that Hughes' book-length poem, Montage of a Dream Deferred, served as "Hughes' poetic commentary on the unrest and anxiety of post-war Black America" ("Poetic" 60), while the scholar John Lowney views Hughes as not only a commenting spectator but also a prophetic participant in the "expression of collective black anger" present in Montage (364). In a more recent essay, the scholar Erskine Peters asserts that "Hughes uses black music" in his poetry "as aesthetic, social and political referent because, to a great extent, black music is black history" (34, italics mine). As these brief examples suggest, scholarship on Hughes' writing has historically correlated Hughes' aesthetic and poetic concerns with his racial identity. 1
I begin this essay by highlighting the traditional presentation of Hughes as a racially representative writer. My initial focus is on Hughes' status as a racial placeholder, as a totemic figure whose pedestal is primarily built on his "authentic" rendering of African-American forms of vernacular and musical expression. First I will show how the current critical figuration of Hughes' work fosters a limited representation of his poetic aesthetic, particularly his jazz-influenced verse. Next, I examine two key aspects of Hughes' poetry that have received insufficient scholarly attention: a) his later volumes of jazz-influenced poetry, the aforementioned Montage (1951) and Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961), and b) the critical role of vocal instrumentality and performance—Hughes reading his poems aloud with and without jazz accompaniment—in understanding his jazz aesthetic. I contend that examining the literal re-presentation of Hughes' speaking and reading voice via Folkways [End Page 1145] Records compilations such as The Voice of Langston Hughes and The Weary Blues album will enrich our understanding of the poetic techniques, content and performance possibilities of his jazz-infused poetry. 2 Hughes' centrality to the idiom of jazz poetry in America will be explored through a comparative analysis of poetry recitations and music performances which explicitly or implicitly allude to his compositions. Thus, my analysis emphasizes the epistemic value of musical and verbal interplay in poetry and performance.
By referring to Hughes' literary status as a "totem," I aim to indicate that Hughes' poetry has been critically codified in a racially and culturally symbolic manner. 3 The heavy emphasis on Hughes' poetry's linguistically authentic African-American "folk" and urban characteristics has tended to over-simplify his corpus. 4 This critical penchant for reviewing Hughes' writing through a primarily racial lens has the unwarranted consequence of obscuring his significance as an experimental writer. My exploration, in contrast, accentuates the genre-breaking and technically innovative features of Hughes' later writings and recordings of his performances. By concentrating on vocal instrumentality in Hughes' performances, I aim to help usher in a new critical tradition in poetry and poetics, one that methodologically approaches listening to poetry readings and performances as central to a more complete analytical appreciation of a poets' corpus. 5
The racial codification and over-simplification of Hughes' poetry...