What Langston Hughes Taught Me About The Music of Language

I’ll never forget the first time I read a poem written by Langston Hughes. I was 16, taking a creative writing class at my high school and struggling to make it through the poetry unit of the course. I couldn’t write a decent poem to save my grade and every poem I read seemed more boring and contrived than the last. We had to spend 20 minutes of every period reading poems and it was torture.

And then there was Langston Hughes, peeking out from the bookshelf in an unassuming paperback. The cover promised he was a “master of American verse.” I’d never heard of the guy.

I flipped to a random page and found a poem called “The Weary Blues.” It was beautiful.

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
     I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
     He did a lazy sway . . .
     He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
     O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
     Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
     O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
     “Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
       Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
       I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
       And put ma troubles on the shelf.”
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
     “I got the Weary Blues
       And I can’t be satisfied.
       Got the Weary Blues
       And can’t be satisfied—
       I ain’t happy no mo’
       And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

This poem had life; movement. For the first time, I could hear a voice in the words. The ink on the page swayed. The lines tapped out the beat. It was jazz. I could almost hear that old piano moan — the music was there, preserved on the page for 80 years before reaching my ears. I had no idea language could do that.

Langston Hughes was long dead when I picked up his work, but I could hear him speaking to me. Our experiences were far removed — he was a black poet who escaped the Jim Crow South to become one of the great writers of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s; I was a 21st century white teenager in a little Arizona mountain town. But despite the gulf of time and place, I couldn’t shake the sense that Hughes was talked directly to me.

As I sat down to write my own work, both poetry and fiction, I like to think that I’m having a conversation with Hughes. I answer his cadence with my own rhythm; my song answers his.

Writing shouldn’t be so polished that you lose the human voice. Language is dynamic, emotional, musical and I try to capture that music in everything I write, so that you can hear me across what time and space separated us. Langston Hughes taught me that.

Sweat in the Street
By J.W. Eberle
After A. Van Jordan

Sweat pours off the shoulders of the night
in greasy drops that stick to the sidewalk.
puddle around my feet,
soak my socks.

Soul-heavy air clings to my fingertips,
trailing in the gutter
with the other restless perfectionists,
missed deadlines,
abandoned desires.

Sweat pours off the shoulders of the thick, gray hour
between night and day.
The city is hot and foul in the back alleys
with the passed-out homeless and last call vagrants.
The street is a mirror where the artists drown.

— 30 —

My name is Jonny Eberle and I’m a writer, photographer and jazz aficionado in Flagstaff, AZ. Who’s your favorite poet and how did they inspire you? Please comment, share or follow me on Twitter: @jonnyeberle. Thanks for reading.

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