Langston Hughes Has Got The Blues

Cross

My old man’s a white old man
And my old mother’s black.
If ever I cursed my white old man
I take my curses back.

If ever I cursed my black old mother
And wished she were in hell,
I’m sorry for that evil wish
And now I wish her well.

My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I’m gonna die,
Being neither white nor black?

by Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

Blues Poem

A blues poem emulates the blues music that evolved from African American slave songs in the late 19th century.

Common features of the blues poem include a loose but distinct rhythm, a common vernacular and a simple rhyme scheme with variable refrains.

Blues almost always addresses some form of loss or hardship.

Langston Hughes, a pioneer and master of blues poetry, here demonstrates a liberal usage of this technique in order to address the complexities of his heredity.

The Dark Side Of Dawn

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The Dark Side Of Dawn

I saw the stars expire in light of dawn.
Each bulb plucked from the sky as if by thieves.
I sought my lover’s eyes, but they were gone.

We drew a fleece over the dew-faced lawn
and laid until the sun had blazed the leaves.
I saw the stars expire in light of dawn.

A beacon forms the far east horizon
to prove the evening sly: The view deceives.
I sought my lover’s eyes, but they were gone.

We’d traced the constellation of a swan
and trimmed it out, and swung it from the eaves.
I saw the stars expire in light of dawn.

The widow wakes her bones without a yawn,
then steals into the grave in which she grieves.
I sought my lover’s eyes, but they were gone.

We dreamt in peace, like prophylactic pawns
the king has killed. One does what one believes.
I saw the stars expire in light of dawn.

The morning’s queen of all the land whereon
night set to fleeing Satan’s feet, not Eve’s.
I saw the stars expire in light of dawn.
I sought my lover’s eyes, but they were gone.

by Ryan Dowling

The Lowly Worm Climbs Up A Winding Stair

The Waking

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

by Theodore Roethke (1908-1963)

The Villanelle

A villanelle is a poetic form using two refrains which recur throughout the poem, first alternately, and then as a couplet.

Look at the breakdown of the villanelle below. Lines A1 and A2 represent the two refrains that are going to recur throughout the form. They appear offset in the first stanza, alternate as the third line of successive stanzas, and form a couplet in the final stanza. The lower case a’s and b’s adhere to the rhyme scheme but are not refrains.

Villanelles are typically written in iambic pentameter, meaning each line has 10 syllables with the accent falling on every other syllable. They are also typically rhymed in an “a-b-a” rhyme scheme. However, these rules are flexible, and even refrains can be varied, as Roethke demonstrates with line A2. Roethke changes it to “And learn by going where to go” in the third stanza, and then to “And, lovely, learn by going where to go” in the fifth stanza. This allows him to maintain a more natural voice and to add a pleasant variation to his refrains.

Notice how the two refrains, taken in and of themselves, are not very specific or spectacular. However, their vagueness grants them a broader range of flexibility within the context of the preceding lines. Don’t be afraid to be a little obtuse when writing your refrains. Lastly, a villanelle needn’t be lyrical, but it’s worth noting how aptly Roethke has fixed his lyrical style to this form. And how he uses the refrains to build up whatever emotion he may be trying to evoke.

Breakdown of the Villanelle

A1 – I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
b – I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
A2 – I learn by going where I have to go.

a – We think by feeling. What is there to know?
b – I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
A1 – I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

a – Of those so close beside me, which are you?
b – God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
A2 – And learn by going where I have to go.

a – Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
b – The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
A1 – I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

a – Great Nature has another thing to do
b – To you and me; so take the lively air,
A2 – And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

a – This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
b – What falls away is always. And is near.
A1 – I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
A2 – I learn by going where I have to go.