Poet Laureate of Harlem

If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you’ve probably figured out by now that I love poetry. The first poem I read that gave me a real sense of how wonderful poetry could be was e.e. cumming’s “in-Just spring.” I was either in the 3rd or 4th grade and the poem just bowled me over because it was so simple and it was so different from any other poem I had read and it made you feel what he was writing about. “When the world is mud-lucious . . . puddle wonderful . . . eddieandbill” – I remember it was cold outside but as I read the poem, I felt I was touching spring.

Since then I have always preferred poets whose styles are similar in some way to cummings. People like William Carlos Williams, Aram Saroyan, and Charles Bukowski to name a few. For me, the best poets use as few words as possible. That’s one reason why I also like Chinese and Japanese poetry so much. Saroyan once wrote a poem that consisted of just one word – crickets – typed repeatedly down the center of the page. You can see that poem and more of his minimalist word experiments here.

Langston Hughes is another poet I admire.  He’s best known for the work he did during the Harlem Renaissance, a literary and intellectual cultural movement of the 1920s and 1930s and he was one of the first poets to experiment with blues and jazz rhythms.

Saturday’s post featured one of Hughes’ poems and I thought that some readers might not be too familiar with him or his work. You can read about Hughes here, while today, I present another of his poems. I think it’s one of the best pieces of poetry ever written.

Hughes wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” while riding a train on his way to Mexico to visit his father. He was just 18 years old. Short and spare, yet containing powerful imagery, the poem manages to tell the story of human civilization in a mere 60 words.

I am not African-American, but this poem speaks to me. I, too, am familiar with rivers and very familiar with the last one he mentions, along with that city, and I’ve seen the river just as he describes.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

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