- Langston Hughes, Blues Poetry, and the Distance between Poems and Songs
The blues poems of Langston Hughes have long been praised for aspiring to, and at times achieving, the condition of the musical genre that inspired them. To Jemie Onwuchekwa, Hughes "proposes to do in literature what others were doing in music, to create, in effect, a literary equivalent of black music."1 Edward E. Waldron goes even farther, arguing that his poems can be read and appreciated as songs: "Hughes captures the mood, the feel, and the spirit of the blues; his poems have the rhythm and the impact of the musical form they incorporate. Indeed, the blues poems of Langston Hughes are blues as well as poetry."2 T. Austin Graham attributes this impulse to writers of the Harlem Renaissance as a whole, and posits that blues poems were designed as scripts for performance: "Their most significant innovation … was a poetics that emulated preexisting musical forms and that aspired to the condition of sacred and popular song. Here was poetry that, far from having a merely symbolic relation to music, could be and seemed in fact to demand that it be sung by its audiences."3 To many, then, the blues poems of Langston Hughes are to be valued for bridging poetry and song, by establishing a close parallel between the two, or even by rendering them wholly undistinguishable.
But Hughes was conscious that poetry cannot achieve the status of music, and that poems which imitate songs can fall short on the page, lacking the emotional color of performance. His blues poems directly confront the fundamental differences between poetry and song. Rather than asking us to forget the written nature of his art, Hughes repeatedly calls attention to the things that his poems lack by virtue of being poems: namely, [End Page 497] music and voice. He does so in order to emulate the ambiguities of printed song lyrics; specifically, the way that lyrics are devoid of the tone, rhythm, and emotion accorded to them in and by performance. On the page, a line such as "Now he's gone, and we're through" (from the song "Am I Blue?") could be read with anger, sadness, relief, or a mixture of these emotions. A singer needs to choose a particular feeling or set of feelings from among these possibilities. In his poems, Hughes deploys such ambiguities strategically, turning a feature of printed lyrics into a poetic tool. At the same time, Hughes emphasizes what poetry can offer by virtue of its form that song cannot. He does so by exploiting the differences between the two and foregrounding effects that can only be achieved on the page. His blues poems thus serve less to bridge the gap between poetry and song than to explore what is distinctive about poetry.
If this aspect of Hughes's blues poetry has long been ignored, it is because critics have tended to stress the poems' "authenticity." By this, critics have in mind both a fidelity to the formal, tonal, and intellectual qualities of the blues genre itself, and a successful articulation of racial identity in poetry. David E. Chinitz argues that "Hughes does not merely impersonate authenticity: he produces it."4 The desire for authenticity, too, has been seen as a characteristic of blues poems written during the Harlem Renaissance more broadly. As early as 1928, Charles S. Johnson contended that "the new racial poetry of the Negro is the expression of something more than experimentation in a new technique. It marks the birth of a new racial consciousness and self-conception."5 This idea has been absorbed into the standard account of the period, echoed (again) by Graham: "the poets of the Harlem Renaissance wrote in musical forms for reasons related to the movement's overarching goal of creating a distinctively black literature" (The Great American Songbooks, 112).
There are good reasons to read the blues poetry of Langston Hughes this way—not least of which, that Hughes himself defended the importance of authenticity in African American art. In the 1926 essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," he criticizes Black poets who try to move beyond their...