ENG 211

| Poetry and Poetics

 
   
Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes photographed by Carl Van Vechten


Langston Hughes,  1902-1967

Links
Lynching Poems
Blues Poems

Links

Find out more about Langston Hughes at Modern American Poetry and the Beinecke Library online multimedia exhibit.

Langston Hughes Papers at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Hughes's early manifesto, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," published in the leftist magazine The Nation in 1926.

Lynching Poems


Song for a Dark Girl

Handout on the meter for this poem

[from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes: Arnold Rampersad, Editor: David Roessel, Associate Editor (1995) , Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. ]
182

1   Way Down South in Dixie
2   (Break the heart of me)
3   They hung my black young lover
4   To a cross roads tree.

 

5   Way Down South in Dixie
6   (Bruised body high in air)
7   I asked the white Lord Jesus
8   What was the use of prayer.

 

9   Way Down South in Dixie
10   (Break the heart of me)
11   Love is a naked shadow
12   On a gnarled and naked tree.

Silhouette

[from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes: Arnold Rampersad, Editor: David Roessel, Associate Editor (1995) , Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. ]
127

1   Southern gentle lady,
2   Do not swoon.
3   They've just hung a black man
4   In the dark of the moon.

 

5   They've hung a black man
6   To a roadside tree
7   In the dark of the moon

[Page 306 ]

 

8   For the world to see
9   How Dixie protects
10   Its white womanhood.

 

11   Southern gentle lady,
12   Be good!
13   Be good!

 

Blue Bayou

[from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes: Arnold Rampersad, Editor: David Roessel, Associate Editor (1995) , Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. ]
104

1   I went walkin'
2   By the blue bayou
3   And I saw the sun go down.
4   I thought about old Greeley
5   And I thought about Lou
6   And I saw the sun go down.

 

7   White man
8   Makes me work all day
9   And I work too hard
10   For too little pay---
11   Then a white man
12   Takes my woman away.

 

13   I'll kill old Greeley.

 

14   The blue bayou
15   Turns red as fire.
16   Put the black man
17   On a rope
18   And pull him higher!

 

19   I saw the sun go down.

 

20   Put him on a rope
21   And pull him higher!

 

22   The blue bayou's
23   A pool of fire.
24   And I saw the sun go down,
25   Down,
26   Down,
27   Lawd I saw the sun go down!

 

The Bitter River

[from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes: Arnold Rampersad, Editor: David Roessel, Associate Editor (1995) , Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. ]
39
(Dedicated to the memory of Charlie Lang and Ernest Green, each fourteen years old when lynched together beneath the Shubuta Bridge over the Chicasawhay River in Mississippi, October 12th, 1942.)

1   There is a bitter river
2   Flowing through the South.
3   Too long has the taste of its water
4   Been in my mouth.
5   There is a bitter river
6   Dark with filth and mud.

[Page 243 ]

 

7   Too long has its evil poison
8   Poisoned my blood.

 

9   I've drunk of the bitter river
10   And its gall coats the red of my tongue,
11   Mixed with the blood of the lynched boys
12   From its iron bridge hung,
13   Mixed with the hopes that are drowned there
14   In the snake-like hiss of its stream
15   Where I drank of the bitter river
16   That strangled my dream:
17   The book studied---but useless,
18   Tool handled---but unused,
19   Knowledge acquired but thrown away,
20   Ambition battered and bruised.
21   Oh, water of the bitter river
22   With your taste of blood and clay,
23   You reflect no stars by night,
24   No sun by day.

 

25   The bitter river reflects no stars---
26   It gives back only the glint of steel bars
27   And dark bitter faces behind steel bars:
28   The Scottsboro boys behind steel bars,
29   Lewis Jones behind steel bars,
30   The voteless share-cropper behind steel bars,
31   The labor leader behind steel bars,
32   The soldier thrown from a Jim Crow bus behind steel bars,
33   The 15ยข mugger behind steel bars,
34   The girl who sells her body behind steel bars,
35   And my grandfather's back with its ladder of scars,
36   Long ago, long ago---the whip and steel bars---
37   The bitter river reflects no stars.

 

38   "Wait, be patient," you say.
39   "Your folks will have a better day."
40   But the swirl of the bitter river
41   Takes your words away.
42   "Work, education, patience
43   Will bring a better day."
44   The swirl of the bitter river
45   Carries your "patience" away.
46   "Disrupter! Agitator!
47   Trouble maker!" you say.

[Page 244 ]

 

48   The swirl of the bitter river
49   Sweeps your lies away.
50   I did not ask for this river
51   Nor the taste of its bitter brew.
52   I was given its water
53   As a gift from you.
54   Yours has been the power
55   To force my back to the wall
56   And make me drink of the bitter cup
57   Mixed with blood and gall.

 

58   You have lynched my comrades
59   Where the iron bridge crosses the stream,
60   Underpaid me for my labor,
61   And spit in the face of my dream.
62   You forced me to the bitter river
63   With the hiss of its snake-like song---
64   Now your words no longer have meaning---
65   I have drunk at the river too long:
66   Dreamer of dreams to be broken,
67   Builder of hopes to be smashed,
68   Loser from an empty pocket
69   Of my meagre cash,
70   Bitter bearer of burdens
71   And singer of weary song,
72   I've drunk at the bitter river
73   With its filth and its mud too long.
74   Tired now of the bitter river,
75   Tired now of the pat on the back,
76   Tired now of the steel bars
77   Because my face is black,
78   I'm tired of segregation,
79   Tired of filth and mud,
80   I've drunk of the bitter river
81   And it's turned to steel in my blood.

 

82   Oh, tragic bitter river
83   Where the lynched boys hung,
84   The gall of your bitter water
85   Coats my tongue.
86   The blood of your bitter water
87   For me gives back no stars.
88   I'm tired of the bitter river!
89   Tired of the bars!

Note on a Possible Intertextual Connection

Reviewing "Bitter River," I think it would help you to have some context on how Hughes uses images of rivers. Have a look at "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," a short and early poem of Hughes's, available here. Take the time, too, to listen to his reading of it, which is interesting as well.

Hughes ends his 1951 book-length sequence "Montage of a Dream Deferred" with this poem:

Between two rivers,
North of the park,
Like darker rivers
The streets are dark.

Black and white,
Gold and brown--
Chocolate-custard
Pie of a town.

Dream within a dream,
Our dream deferred.

Good morning, daddy!

Ain't you heard?

Rivers also appear often in Hughes's blues poems, which we'll read more of during the last week of the semester. Here's a sampling:


Wide River [from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes: Arnold Rampersad, Editor: David Roessel, Associate Editor (1995) , Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. ]
119

1 Ma baby lives across de river
2 An' I ain't got no boat.
3 She lives across de river.
4 I ain't got no boat.
5 I ain't a good swimmer
6 An' I don't know how to float.

7 Wide, wide river
8 'Twixt ma love an' me.
9 Wide, wide river
10 'Twixt ma love an' me.
11 I never knowed how
12 Wide a river can be.

13 Got to cross that river
14 An' git to ma baby somehow.
15 Cross that river,
16 Git to ma baby somehow---
17 Cause if I don't see ma baby
18 I'll lay down an' die right now.

Blues Poems

"The Weary Blues," one of Hughes's most famous works, is available here and here. You can listen to a streaming version of Hughes reciting the poem here (through a Reed subscription service, only available on campus or with a proxy server) or here (streaming through the audio resources page of the Beinecke Library exhibit on Hughes). Excerpted critical responses can be found here, and an annotated version for high school students is available here. Depending on how you read poetry, you may or may not find it helpful to read these explanations before our discussion of the poem.

Hughes explains the blues as part of his LP The Story of Jazz (streaming). Here he explains as part of a video interview the form and nature of the blues (streaming).

12 bar blues poems by Hughes include "Morning After," and these poems.

8 bar blues is a version of a ballad meter, and is sometimes known as a blues ballad. Hughes wrote many poems that can be read in relationship to both ballad and 8 bar blues traditions, including "Sylvester's Dying Bed," "Life is Fine," and these poems.

Hughes burned an LP of him reading his poetry backed to jazz poetry arranged by Leonard Feather and Charles Mingus, The Weary Blues, available as one long file, or available streaming through the Beinecke Library exhibit as a link from this page. Hughes's recording of "The Weary Blues" is available at around 5:40.

 

Weary Blues by Langston Hughes

 

12 bar blues poems

Wide River

1   Ma baby lives across de river
2   An' I ain't got no boat.
3   She lives across de river.
4   I ain't got no boat.
5   I ain't a good swimmer
6   An' I don't know how to float.

 

7   Wide, wide river
8   'Twixt ma love an' me.
9   Wide, wide river
10   'Twixt ma love an' me.
11   I never knowed how
12   Wide a river can be.

 

13   Got to cross that river
14   An' git to ma baby somehow.
15   Cross that river,
16   Git to ma baby somehow---
17   Cause if I don't see ma baby
18   I'll lay down an' die right now.

 

Homesick Blues

1   De railroad bridge's
2   A sad song in de air.
3   De railroad bridge's
4   A sad song in de air.
5   Ever time de trains pass
6   I wants to go somewhere.

 

7   I went down to de station.
8   Ma heart was in ma mouth.
9   Went down to de station.
10   Heart was in ma mouth.
11   Lookin' for a box car
12   To roll me to de South.

 

13   Homesick blues, Lawd,
14   'S a terrible thing to have.
15   Homesick blues is
16   A terrible thing to have.
17   To keep from cryin'
18   I opens ma mouth an' laughs.

 

Bad Man

1   I'm a bad, bad man
2   Cause everybody tells me so.
3   I'm a bad, bad man.
4   Everybody tells me so.
5   I takes ma meanness and ma licker
6   Everwhere I go.

 

7   I beats ma wife an'
8   I beats ma side gal too.
9   Beats ma wife an'
10   Beats ma side gal too.
11   Don't know why I do it but
12   It keeps me from feelin' blue.

 

13   I'm so bad I
14   Don't even want to be good.
15   So bad, bad, bad I
16   Don't even want to be good.
17   I'm goin' to de devil an'
18   I wouldn't go to heaben if I could.

 

Bound No'th Blues

1   Goin' down the road, Lawd,
2   Goin' down the road.
3   Down the road, Lawd,
4   Way, way down the road.
5   Got to find somebody
6   To help me carry this load.

 

7   Road's in front o' me,
8   Nothin' to do but walk.
9   Road's in front o' me,
10   Walk ... an' walk ... an' walk.
11   I'd like to meet a good friend
12   To come along an' talk.

 

13   Hates to be lonely,
14   Lawd, I hates to be sad.
15   Says I hates to be lonely,
16   Hates to be lonely an' sad,
17   But ever friend you finds seems
18   Like they try to do you bad.

 

19   Road, road, road, O!
20   Road, road ... road ... road, road!
21   Road, road, road, O!
22   On the no'thern road.
23   These Mississippi towns ain't
24   Fit fer a hoppin' toad.

Lonesome Place

1   I got to leave this town.
2   It's a lonesome place.
3   Got to leave this town cause
4   It's a lonesome place.
5   A po', po' boy can't
6   Find a friendly face.

 

7   Goin' down to de river
8   Flowin' deep an' slow.
9   Goin' down to de river
10   Deep an' slow,---
11   Cause there ain't no worries
12   Where de waters go.

 

13   I'm weary, weary,
14   Weary as I can be.
15   Weary, weary,
16   Weary as can be.
17   This life's so weary,
18   'S 'bout to overcome me.

Gal's Cry for a Dying Lover

1   Heard de owl a hootin',
2   Knowed somebody's 'bout to die.
3   Heard de owl a hootin',
4   Knowed somebody's 'bout to die.
5   Put ma head un'neath de kiver,
6   Started in to moan an' cry.

 

7   Hound dawg's barkin'
8   Means he's gonna leave this world.
9   Hound dawg's barkin'
10   Means he's gonna leave this world.
11   O, Lawd have mercy
12   On a po' black girl.

 

13   Black an' ugly
14   But he sho do treat me kind.
15   I'm black an' ugly
16   But he sho do treat me kind.
17   High-in-heaben Jesus,
18   Please don't take this man o' mine.

Young Gal's Blues

1   I'm gonna walk to the graveyard
2   'Hind ma friend Miss Cora Lee.
3   Gonna walk to the graveyard
4   'Hind ma dear friend Cora Lee
5   Cause when I'm dead some
6   Body'll have to walk behind me.

 

7   I'm goin' to the po' house
8   To see ma old Aunt Clew.
9   Goin' to the po' house
10   To see ma old Aunt Clew.
11   When I'm old an' ugly
12   I'll want to see somebody, too.

 

13   The po' house is lonely
14   An' the grave is cold.
15   O, the po' house is lonely,
16   The graveyard grave is cold.
17   But I'd rather be dead than
18   To be ugly an' old.

 

19   When love is gone what
20   Can a young gal do?
21   When love is gone, O,
22   What can a young gal do?
23   Keep on a-lovin' me, daddy,
24   Cause I don't want to be blue.

 

Hard Daddy

1   I went to ma daddy,
2   Says Daddy I have got the blues.
3   Went to ma daddy,
4   Says Daddy I have got the blues.
5   Ma daddy says, Honey,
6   Can't you bring no better news?

 

7   I cried on his shoulder but
8   He turned his back on me.
9   Cried on his shoulder but
10   He turned his back on me.
11   He said a woman's cryin's
12   Never gonna bother me.

 

13   I wish I had wings to
14   Fly like the eagle flies.
15   Wish I had wings to
16   Fly like the eagle flies.
17   I'd fly on ma man an'
18   I'd scratch out both his eyes.

 

Hey!


1   Sun's a settin',
2   This is what I'm gonna sing.
3   Sun's a settin',
4   This is what I'm gonna sing:
5   I feels de blues a comin',
6   Wonder what de blues'll bring?

 

Hey! Hey!


1   Sun's a risin',
2   This is gonna be ma song.
3   Sun's a risin',
4   This is gonna be ma song.
5   I could be blue but
6   I been blue all night long.

 

The Weary Blues
 

8 bar blues poems

Bad Luck Card

1   Cause you don't love me
2   Is awful, awful hard.
3   Gypsy done showed me
4   My bad luck card.

 

5   There ain't no good left
6   In this world for me.
7   Gypsy done tole me---
8   Unlucky as can be.

 

9   I don't know what
10   Po' weary me can do.
11   Gypsy says I'd kill my self
12   If I was you.

 

Misery

1   Play the blues for me.
2   Play the blues for me.
3   No other music
4   'Ll ease my misery.

 

5   Sing a soothin' song.
6   Said a soothin' song,
7   Cause the man I love's done
8   Done me wrong.

 

9   Can't you understand,
10   O, understand
11   A good woman's cryin'
12   For a no-good man?

 

13   Black gal like me,
14   Black gal like me
15   'S got to hear a blues
16   For her misery.