Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Theme for Visual T: Teaching the Poetry of Langston Hughes

I'm a big Langston Hughes fan; he had a gift for putting ideas into challenging yet embracing truths, and boy, was the man prolific. He wrote dozens of poems, plays, short stories and novels, many that are appropriate for a middle- and high-school-age classroom.

He was, of course, African-American, and now that I'm teaching in a primarily African-American or Caribbean-American school and lack a rigorous knowledge of the culture's literature, I found myself  returning to his work several times throughout the fall. I should have known that I was overreaching when I began handing out copies of Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise" and began with, "This poem is by one of America's foremost African-American female writers..." causing a weary student to ask, "...Langston Hughes?"

So don't beat him into the ground, but still, you gotta love Hughes. Accessible, rhythmic, captivating, fair-minded but unrelenting, he's not too different from your students, I bet. Thus, in the last column of 2008, I thought we'd look at four Hughes poems: "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," "April Rain Song," "Harlem" and "Theme for English B." There are a half-dozen other Hughes poems that you could use as well (indeed, I consulted four different English high school textbooks I have around, and each proffered two different Hughes poems), but these are my favorites to teach. And while you can't have favorites amongst your students, you can most certainly have favorites amongst your texts.

Understanding Hughes Understanding Rivers

Langston Hughes didn't have a stable childhood. He was raised, variously, by his mother, his parents, his grandmother, his aunt and uncle, his mother again (this time with a stepfather), his father again (in Mexico), and back to his mother, at various points in Missouri, Illinois and Ohio. He went to college at Columbia near New York's Harlem (we'll return there) and, after dropping out, traveled to Europe and Africa as a merchant seaman.

By the time Hughes was a young man, in other words, he'd done a great deal of traveling. It's important to know this when you look at the text of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (hear Hughes read it aloud while you read along at www.poets.org). Keep in mind that he wrote this in his early twenties; it takes that well-earned traveling gravitas to pull off the opening line, "I've known rivers."

I'm not going to tell you how to teach poetry in your classroom, except to say that I think we teachers have, at times, become frightened of "ruining" poetry for students by "overanalyzing" it instead of just "experiencing" it with them. (Billy Collins, I love all your work on behalf of poetry, but your "Introduction to Poetry" goes too far!) The point is valid — no 12-year-old should be circling iambic phrases on first meeting a poem — but at the same time, we do a disservice to students if we leave them with a poem that poses any linguistic difficulty, and do not help them tease out how to experience it. Most people enjoy understanding what they read, at least a little, and I think that's important for students too.

I bring this up because what students find most perplexing about this poem usually will ultimately become what they most enjoy. That's Hughes' switch from speaking as himself, a guy who knows rivers, to speaking as the voice of the African people, beginning with the line, "I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young." I always begin there, asking the students where the Euphrates is, and whether it's possible that Hughes could have bathed there. Then we talk about "when dawns were young" and what that means. From there, it doesn't take much time for my students to recognize that he's talking as a people, not a person.

You know what's coming next. After we discuss the poem, I ask my students to write in the voice of a people... not necessarily the voice of a race, but of a group of people. What does that group of people know, deep in their soul? What are their group experiences, likes Hughes' bath in the Euphrates? This led to one of my all-time favorite student titles: "The Trekker Speak of Conventions." And, no, it wasn't a parody.

Aw, Cute!: "April Rain Song"

I almost always mistakenly call this "Little Rain Song" in my classroom. It's easy to see why I get confused, as my title is just as accurate: it is a sweet little rain song (you can read it here), and it makes me happy. Hughes loves the rain (he says so in the last line) and I do too. There is much we can say about poetry, of course, but I believe one of the nicest things we can say about it is that it makes us happy.

My students are quick to comment that this little poem is like a song (I am nice, and do not usually sarcastically point to the title's last word). I always jump on this and ask why? What makes it seem like a song? Well, the words repeat, they point out. Yep, I agree, and write "Repetition" on the board. It's short, they say, and makes a clear picture in your head, like a song. Yep, and "Imagery" goes up on the board. It has a nice rhythm to it, they say, and up goes "Rhythm." It gives me a feeling, someone will inevitably say, like when it rains outside and I sit on my bed and watch it out the window. "Mood," I put up on the board. Hey, that's not a bad list of terms for one little poem.

What I especially like to use this poem for teaching, though, is personification. This literary technique is tricky for my low-reading classroom to grasp, but this poem perfectly shows my students what it means. Something that clearly isn't human (the rain) does all kinds of human things (kissing, beating, singing, playing). This doesn't have to be the point of your lesson, but it's a nifty way to get across this concept. Take any of the five (!) literary elements you've got up there and help your students bring them into their own writing. Or do something a little looser. The poem's a great springboard.

People, You Cannot Just Make Up Titles for Poems! It's Not Called "A Dream Deferred"!

Langston Hughes did not write the play A Raisin in the Sun. That was Lorraine Hansberry, thank you very much. The confusion stems from the fact that Hansberry took her title from Hughes' poem, "Harlem," which has itself been incorrectly titled all over the Internet. The poem's title isn't "A Dream Deferred" or "A Raisin in the Sun" but just "Harlem." This is important not just because a poet should get to title his own poem (dang it!) but also because the title locates the poem for us, deep in Hughes' beloved Harlem.

Hughes lived in Harlem almost all, although not quite, his adult life, and thus saw it transform itself from the 1920s Renaissance through the Great Depression and into the early Civil Rights Movement. The movement of the people on the street, the jazz floating out of the clubs, the gospel call and responses coming from the churches — all of this was Hughes' daily background. Although he was surprisingly accepted into mainstream (read: White) America, he chose to spend his days among African Americans, his people. And his writing reflects this. You can't teach Hughes without teaching a little Harlem.

The poem itself is stirring and unusual. Stirring because readers can quickly grasp that it is a portrait of a people seething under the weight of their historic burdens. Unusual because there is no call to freedom, nor a "We Shall Overcome" type of uplift. This poem is a warning, and, when you show your students some of what happened in the Civil Rights Movement (for ideas, see my previous columns on historical context in teaching English), they will be able to see that it was an apt one.

I always begin teaching this poem by asking my students to write down a cherished dream on a slip of paper. Then I collect them all and inform the class (while dumping papers in the trash), "Sorry, that's not going to come true. Now what?" This dramatic beginning sets up their ability to comprehend the emotions in the poem, as they consider people living with their dreams deferred. I ask them what dreams Hughes might be writing about. In the same situation, with their dreams deferred, how they would react? Would they dry up? Crust over? Fester? Run? Or, as Hughes warns, explode? (By the way, the poem is packed with similes and one final, devastating metaphor).

One other note on this poem. If you happen to read A Raisin in the Sun at the same time or in conjunction, your students might be interested to note that each of Hansberry's characters embodies one of the phrases from the poem. One character festers, another runs, another dries up... I do not know if this was intentional or not, but, like how The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz line up, it's cool.

If Someone Turned This In, I'd Pass Out: "Theme for English B"

"Theme for English B" is one of my favorite poems ever. And my students generally like it too. It's very accessible for them, since it is about something they have experienced — having to write something for school, with somewhat nebulous instructions, under somewhat constrained circumstances.

We remember from the beginning of this article (right?) that Hughes went to Columbia, briefly, which he calls "this college on the hill above Harlem" in the poem. So, surely, this poem is based on his experience. Yet at the same time, Hughes isn't being directly autobiographical. He was not born in Winston-Salem, and he certainly wasn't in school at the time of this writing in 1951 (when he would have been in his late forties). You can sense he's writing about someone who's twenty in 1951 too, with the mention of bop, and "colored" vs. "Negro."

He seems to be working in a different vein than "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" or "Harlem." This isn't a statement of self, or a warning of racial strife, but instead contains the beginning of an attempt to understand the other. You can hear it in the lines, "So will my page be colored that I write?/ Being me, it will not be white./But it will be/ a part of you, instructor./ You are white--- /yet a part of me, as I am a part of you. /That's American." See it? It's not an exploration of what it is to be Black, or to be angry, but what it is to be Black and angry and American, and in constant conflict with people who may beat you down, but who are, in the end, still people.

I don't usually say very¬† much to my class when we read this poem. We read it, we might talk about it a little, and then I ask them to write a response. I will literally say to them, "Go home and write a page tonight. And let that page come out of you — Then, it will be true. Start now." Sometimes I get nothing more than a long anxiety-filled note wondering if they're writing the "right" thing. But more often, I get beautiful statements of self.

And I think Langston Hughes would be glad to know that I do learn from them, as they learn from me.

That's it from me for 2008, dear readers. Thanks for being so in favor of this new style of column, which I much enjoy writing. Don't forget to send me your requests for any works of literature you'd like to see discussed here. Until next time, have a safe, happy and healthy holiday season and a lovely, wordy New Year!

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Monday December 22nd 2008, 6:44 AM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
I love the "April Rain Song". I sense that you are an inspiration to your students. This column had lots of
life. I was nodding off when I started reading it. Now after reading it twice I am wide awake and only wish the
article was longer. Thank you.
Sunday December 28th 2008, 8:53 PM
Comment by: Hopping for Philology (MI)
As a 6th grade literature teacher, thanks Shannon! I finally got a chance to sit down and read your article over the holiday break. It sparked my creativity and gave me some real inspiration for my poetry unit (Hughes is at the top of my list). I appreciated reading a from-the-heart, imponderous article!
Tuesday January 27th 2009, 2:01 PM
Comment by: H. J. S.
"Silhouette," defined as, dark, visible against white. Certainly not an "April (or Little) Rain Song," but with all the attributes you chalked on the board for that beautiful song, including "mood." "Sillouette, more a dirge, a wresting (as the key used to tune a harp), more visual than audible. Back to rain, I love the rain.
Sunday May 17th 2009, 6:40 PM
Comment by: Adele C. M. (Charlotte, NC)
Well, I was partitioning some stuff in my E-Mail folder and came across this (in May). It was one of those articles that momentarily frightens me that I might have gone through life and not have ever seen it. An extraordinarily lovely and insightful article!

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