Ain’t No Mountain High Enough: Langston Hughes and the Racial Mountain

Aspects of Negro Life: Song of the Towers by Aaron Douglas

Langston Hughes was one of the most influential and paradoxical poets of his time. He is both so deeply invested in the foundations of our Modern American culture and grossly underrepresented in the scholarly literature of said culture. Langston Hughes was among the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, a political, artistic, and cultural movement in Harlem around the 1920’s and 1930’s. Similar to the European Renaissance, the Harlem Renaissance was about vocalizing and celebrating the African-American experience, announcing this simultaneously new and ancient experience to America and to the world, and creating great art. Before Langston Hughes became a Harlem Renaissance heavy hitter, he grew up in Kansas, briefly attended Columbia University on track to become a mining engineer. Eventually he dropped out of Columbia and dropped into the world of Art and Poetry, Harlem. One of his most culturally impactful pieces was an early essay / manifesto called “The Negro Artist and the Racial Artist”. In this he articulates the difficulties facing “The Negro Artist” in 1920’s America, of which there were many. He speaks about the dangers of the phrase “I want to be a poet — not a Negro poet”, saying, “meaning, I believe, ‘I want to write like a white poet’; meaning subconsciously, ‘I would like to be a white poet’; meaning behind that, ‘I would like to be white'”.  Hughes goes on to say that “no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet.” This essay is essentially a battle against “this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.” Hughes postulates that the deeply culturally and systematically racist society that America supported for so long ingrained a subconscious idea of white superiority, specifically in art and literature, in the minds of all. This backwards hegemony is horribly detrimental to aspiring artists because, according to Hughes, artists must know and love themselves before they can be a “great poet”. Hughes in this essay is encouraging “The Negro Artist” to produce art that is wholly themselves, to try not to be anything thing that they are not, to cling to their own all encompassing identity so resolutely as to not be shaken from it by the battering that “truly racial” art receives. Hughes uses Jean Toomer’s Cane as an example, saying, ” The colored people did not praise it. The white people did not buy it. Most of the colored people who did read Cane hate it. They are afraid of it. Although the critics gave it good reviews the public remained indifferent.” Hughes closes the essay with this line, “If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves,” which is a great summation of the larger theme of the work. As an artist and as a human being, you will not find external success among internal strife. You must come to terms with your many multitudes and learn to love them.

Source: http://teachers.phillipscollection.org/artwork/aspects-negro-life

 

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The two constants in Mary Oliver’s Life: Nature and Dogs

Mary Oliver came from an unhappy home life complete with a sexually abusive father and a neglectful mother. From a very young age, she began wondering the woods, with Walden in her backpack, exploring and trying to escape her home life. To this day, she claims she doesn’t care for the enclosure of buildings. With this in mind, her choice of writing almost universally writing her poetry about nature should be no surprise.

Many different themes and subjects are touched upon in Mary Oliver’s poetry, however the underlying themes throughout her poetry is of nature and its deep connection to.

https://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/07/books/mary-olivers-dog-songs-finds-poetry-in-friends.html

Mary Oliver’s love for nature and her constant need for dogs is clearly seen throughout her poetry.

She compares and contrasts the ideal state of nature to the messiness and imperfections of humans.  Her sporadic disconnect with humans, stems directly from her child hood and all the things she tried to escape as a child in the woods with Walden.

 

Her love for nature and her comfort with nature is also illuminated in her life through her constant requirement of having a dog. She has said, “Dogs are the perfect companion…They don’t speak!”.

Although, she only talks in a positive way about people when there is nature involved. She insists that a person is made better by nature and that when one is lost, nature will help them find not only their way again, but themselves. Dogs, in Mary Oliver’s eyes, are the perfect companion nature has provided for humans. This again, stems directly from her childhood upbringing. She found herself, when she was younger, in the woods, where she felt most comfortable. Her childhood continues to mold her adult hood, especially in her poetry.

Source: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/mary-oliver

 

 

 

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A New Perspective-Poet Laureate 2018-2019

Tracy K. Smith, an African American female poet originally from Massachusetts, was reappointed for Poet Laureate for the 2018-2019 year. Her amazing prose like, Duende, Wade in the Water, and My Life on Mars helped her earn the remarkable title originally. Each year, the Library Congress chooses to appoint one poet who has represented American poems as a whole and represented a greater appreciation for writing poetry.  Smith addresses social issues regarding race, gender, and sexual assault in many of her poems, attempting to shine a light on the frequent problematic controversies in today’s society. Smith has expresses her motive for writing this type of poetry as, “a way for her to ‘bring voice to the unsayable, the untranslatable.’”  Smith “strips down” her poetry to attain a raw and real meaning to the words she is expressing in her poetry. Her use of simple diction reflects an elegant tone that develops the structure to her topic.  Due to her title as Poet Laureate, Smith writes for the American people, not just a specific race or ethnicity; this is what makes her so unique. As a woman of African descent, having a different perspective for the voice of America’s poets creates a new approach to the position. Smith is very devoted to her fans and she often has poetry readings. Listening to the passion she portrays when reading her own poem aloud, takes the listeners and readers to another place. Her words become alive as they escape her mouth, the reader suddenly becomes the main character. As Smith takes the readers on the journey of her poem, the audience experiences the struggles Smith highlights. The impact the video makes is why Smith is Poet Laureate. Not only does she take a reader and make them into a minority American, allowing them to experience their struggles to try and grasp a different point of view.

Here Are the Poems I chose for my term paper that helped me experience Smith’s passion:

 

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T. S. Eliot and Dante

With his avid admiration for Dante, T. S. Eliot adapted the lines, themes, and the writing style of Dante in Divine Comedy in his own writing. Eliot is known for his use of allusions, especially to Dante’s Divine Comedy. He frequently alluded to Divine Comedy in The Waste Land; however, his allusion to Divine Comedy becomes obvious in Four Quartets. Eliot himself stated in his journal “What Dante Means to Me,” which was published in July 1950 by Italian News, “twenty years The Waste Land, I wrote in Little Gidding, a passage which is intended to be the nearest equivalent to a canto of the inferno of the Purgatorio” (Eliot). By alluding to Divine Comedy, Eliot thus attempted to connect his contemporary readers with Dante and religion and provide a parallel worldview between Purgatorio and inferno, which “which Dante visited and a hallucinated scene after an air-raid” (Eliot). He also directly employed Dante’s writing style- Eliot respected the direct expressions that Dante used throughout his work. Dante’s writing accurately delivered all the emotions -shock, surprise, and terror. Eliot wrote in the same journal, “certainly I have borrowed lines from him, in the attempt to reproduce, or rather to arouse in the reader’s mind the memory of some Dantesque scene, and thus establish a relationship between the medieval inferno and modern life” (Eliot). Eliot, therefore, aspired to create a similar unique moment for his readers through his poems. Moreover, in his book called Dante, Eliot wrote, “poetry of Dante is … extremely easy to read… genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” (Eliot 8). Eliot focused on directly conveying the scenes and emotions through easy and simple writing style in his work. He also adapted the unique form called terza rima that Dante first utilized in Divine Comedy. Eliot’s respect for Dante is evident in his personal writings and published pieces – by alluding to Dante and adapting his straightforward writing style, Eliot wished to create a mesmerizing moment full of emotion for his readers.Screen Shot 2018-05-22 at 10.47.04 PM.png(Figure 1 – Eliot’s quote on Dante and Shakespeare)

Eliot left a famous quotation on Dante and Shakespeare that “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third.” His line expresses his passionate respect for Dante and Shakespeare.

Sources:

http://tseliot.com/prose/what-dante-means 

http://weeklyresumes.co/resume-cv/t-s-eliot-essay-on-dante-79168.html/attachment/t-s-eliot-essay-on-dante-luxury-t-s-eliot-quote-dante-and-shakespeare-divide-the-world-between

 

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Ezra Pound: The Midwife of Modernism

As one of the founding fathers of the imagist style of poetry, Ezra Pound laid the groundwork for the careers of contemporary writers such as William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, and James Joyce. Yet, Pound’s acceptance of fascism following the end of WWI strained his relationship with his fellow poets. This being said, despite his anti-American perspective, Pound’s modernistic style still made its way into the works of T.S. Elliot, especially the poem, “The Wasteland.” Pound  helped Elliot edit the poem, giving him advice about the order of the verse, and encouraging his glorification of disillusionment and despair. Some scholars believe Pound used Elliot’s newly diagnosed nervous disorder to sway him to incorporate modernistic elements of a lost and forgotten world. Pound added the phrase “dead land” (Eliot 2) to Eliot’s original draft, a demonstration of Pound’s intended tone for the rest of the poem. Pound also helped in the creation of the “forgetful snow” (6) that “warm[s]” (5) the Earth, a paradox inspired by the poets’ questions regarding reality and the prospects of humanity. Eliot’s statement that, “April is the cruelest month” (1) echoes Pound’s description of, “pale carnage beneath a bright mist” (Pound 5) in his poem “April.” In both cases April is a symbol for society, where a time filled with promises of growth and prosperity turns out to be a façade, a “bright mist” that obscures the hideous underbelly of post WWI society. Upon the completion of “The Wasteland,” Pound wrote Elliot a letter in which he compared himself to the midwife of the poem, and encouraged Elliot to use the same publisher whom he and James Joyce both employed. Together with Joyce’s Ulysses, and Pound’s The Cantos, “The Wasteland” embodied what Pound dubbed “our modern experiment:” mankind’s adaptation to a postwar world. By mentoring contemporary writers, Pound left his mark on early twentieth-century literature; a mark that is seen in works published long after his death.

 

ezra pounds wasteland

Pound’s comments on Eliot’s first draft of “The Wasteland”

 

Source: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47311/the-waste-land

https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/april-41/

https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature/articles/ezra-pound-and-the-drafts-of-the-waste-land

 

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Robert Frost’s Duality

Robert Frost, known by his full name Robert Lee Frost has an incredible family and life story. His unique development began with his father, William Prescott Frost Jr., an ardent Democrat and advocate for States’ Rights. An admirer of the Confederacy, William tried to enlist fighting for the South during the Civil War, but was denied because of his youth. Dismayed, William later moved to San Francisco, showing no hesitation in making his racist beliefs publicly known. Writing shocking pieces for the San Francisco Bulletin, an assassin unsuccessfully tried to kill him by shooting through a window. Running for election multiple times, Robert’s father dressed him up in political attire, having him campaign for him as a toddler. Looking a Frost now, recognized for his progressive ideology characterized by incredibly deep thinking, it is ironic to know that his father wanted nothing more than for the South to win the Civil War.

Even Frost’s demeanor seen through his writing is contrary to how he acted during his maturing years. As The New Yorker writes, “in his poetry, Frost emphasized the part of himself that remained aloof and on the outside. He was like “a very keen-witted boy, who would rather know how to sharpen an axehead than sharpen it, who would rather know where spruce gum comes from than go and gather it.” In real life, however, Frost had a certain “strength and vividness” to him. Acting on impulse rather than careful inspection of cause and effect, Frost could be seen doing reckless things, like spending a week outside, during the winter, without a tent or change of clothes.

The ironic duality of Robert Frost’s life is easily traced back to his origins. While his family supported the Southern Confederacy, Frost grew up to be a progressive thinker. Still, Frost did once say “a liberal is a man too broadminded to take his side in a quarrel.” His own quote describes himself, where many consider him to be liberal because of his love of nature, but he would describe himself as conservative. In poetry, Frost shows his reserved side, but those who know him describe him as energetic. Many revered poets exhibit this ironic dual nature; perhaps it is a necessary ingredient in a unique mind

Rober-Frost-Quotes-2-1024x473

Sources: Biography.com (including photo), The New Yorker

 

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The Other Side of The Modernist Poet

Other than being a revolutionary poet for his time, E.E. Cummings has a surprising array of experiences during his life journey. He was a pacifist during the time of WW I. He served in the French ambulance corps even with these anti-war beliefs; this was a common position for pacifists during this time because they were able to contribute to the war effort and make a living without fighting. But, it was eventually through his anti-war writing that he got himself into trouble. He wrote letters back home in which he described his hatred for the war. He and a friend jokingly attempted to write the most offensive thing they could think of to get past theFrench sensors and to send back home; however, eventually they were intercepted because no one was taking this war as a joke.  Cummings was later imprisoned because of these letters. He was sent to an internment camp in Normandy, France, but soon after his father came and bailed him out. Cummings was lucky his father was able to assist him, but his friend was not so lucky. His autobiography, The Enormous Room, recounts his experiences in prison and his pacifist beliefs. The name comes from the area in which Cummings and his friend were detained in Normandy: a large, one room section. In this biography, he describes the events leading up to his imprisonment and the horrid conditions that he experienced there. He was only there for a short while, unlike his friend, and thus he did not struggle greatly through this time but did provide him with a unique perspective to share.

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Source: https://www.marietta.edu/article/‘ee-cummings-pacifist-prisoner-poet’-next-wwi-speaker-series

http://www.vlib.us/medical/ambulnce/ambulnce.htm

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Adrienne Rich’s Homeschool Discovery of Her Values

Adrienne Rich was known for her bold words regarding oppression, women’s rights, and social injustice. She let her moral values shine through her work, demonstrating the strength and importance they held in her life. These values were clearly instilled in her very early on, provoking questions of how she learned them. A believable answer is that Adrienne Rich was homeschooled until fourth grade. This meant that many of her fundamental values came from her parents and her home environment, rather than from her peers and teachers. It has been proven that children learn most of their fundamental values throughout their early childhood, and the environment that they learn them in plays a huge role in the formation of said beliefs. Being homeschool until she was old enough to differentiate her own values from others, implies that the values that Rich carried with her throughout her life were most likely some that she learned at home when she was growing up. Being homeschooled meant that Rich was not influenced by her peers contrasting opinions, but rather the opposite as she learned to share the same views as her parents and her surrounding home environment. This also implies that her parent’s views on oppression, women’s rights, and social injustice were most likely as strong as her own, if not stronger. Rich went on to use the values that she developed at home to make her work meaningful and powerful. This further goes to show why Adrienne Rich felt comfortable breaking down boundaries and discussing controversial and sensitive topics in her works. While being homeschooled does not appear as fundamental in the creation of personal values for some, it is clear that because of Rich’s age throughout her time being homeschooled, the way she saw the world and the issues it contained were truly impacted. The impact that her homeschooling had on her writing is evident in many of her poems, including “North American Time”, “Translations”, and “Power”. All of these poems were works that I included in my research paper to demonstrate the incredible influence and confidence Rich had in her words.

Adrienne Rich was recorded reading both “North American Time” and “Power”, and I have included a reading of “Translations” as well, although it is not read by Rich.

“North American Time” Video Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bi_N3UPAD5E

“Power” Video Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtX3sDbBqJg

“Translations” Video Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0F8nl9KwUg4&t=10s

Biographical Source: http://english.fju.edu.tw/lctd/asp/authors/00140/introduction.htm

Image Source: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/elizabeth-bishop-and-alice-methfessel-one-art

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Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”

Screen Shot 2018-05-21 at 11.34.15 AMSylvia Plath’s father, Otto Plath, was an important part of her life and shaped her into the woman she was. Otto Plath died when Sylvia was only eight years old, yet the short time Sylvia spent with her father influenced the rest of her life. The poem, “Daddy” is very helpful in understanding Sylvia Plath’s relationship with her father and shows how Plath hated and feared him. In “Daddy,” she says she thinks every German is her father. Otto Plath was a German himself and was also accused of being Pro-German before and during WWII. Therefore, it makes sense that Plath would associate all Germans with her father, especially because in her mind they were all monsters. Sylvia Plath says she feels like a “Jew” (32) and that she thinks she “may well be a Jew” (35). Plath viewed her father as a Nazi which is apparent through her use of the word “swastika” (46) to take the place of God in her father’s life. Her father’s supposed identity as a Nazi and her supposed identity as a “Jew” show that Plath’s father terrorized her like the Jews were terrorized by the Nazis. Plath wishes she could have killed her father, which exhibits her disdain for her father. Also, when she says, “I have always been scared of you” (41), it illustrates Plath’s fear of her father. Plath reads her poem, “Daddy” aloud in an aggressive and angry tone which further conveys her feelings of anger and hatred towards her father. She calls her father a “brute” (49) to depict him as a monster. Moreover, Sylvia Plath describes her father as “a devil . . . who / Bit my pretty red heart in two” (54-56).  When Plath says this, it reveals how her father broke her “pretty red heart” and ruined her life. She also compares her father to Hitler and says she made a model of him in the form of “A man in black with a Meinkampf look” (65). Mein Kampf is the autobiographical book that Hitler wrote describing his development of antisemitism, his political ideology, and his plans for the future of Germany. Plath uses this book title to describe her father as antisemitic towards her, a “Jew.” This metaphorical connection serves to portray Plath’s father as an evil man who is sub-human, like Hitler. Plath felt as though her father acted with hostility towards her in the same way that Hitler acted with Hostility towards Jews. Continuing with this same idea, she says her father was a vampire who “drank [her] blood for . . . / Seven years” (73-74). Plath also says “the villagers never liked you” (77) which further shows how her father was a disagreeable and unfriendly man. Plath’s father was a bad example of what a parent should be and thus had a negative effect on his daughter’s life. The death of Plath’s father likely played a part in her severe depression that eventually led her to commit suicide. In this way, and in many other ways, Sylvia Plath’s father had a tremendous impact on this young poet’s life through his role as a bad father.

View the video of Sylvia Plath reading aloud her poem “Daddy” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hHjctqSBwM

Read Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy” here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48999/daddy-56d22aafa45b2

For more information about Plath’s father, visit this site: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/aug/17/sylvia-plath-otto-father-files

 

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Zora Neale Hurston

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Zora Neale Hurston (left) Alice Walker (right)

People often knew Zora Neale Hurston as a novelist; however, her true passion resided within anthropology. Hurston was born in Alabama in 1891 to two former slaves. While Hurston was a young girl, her family moved to Eatonville, Florida. Unfortunately, Hurston’s mother passed away in 1904. In the 1920’s Zora left her hometown in Florida and moved to New York, where she eventually attended Columbia University. Her wit, irreverence and folk writing style allowed her to become a significant leader in the Harlem Renaissance. She established herself as a literary force with her stories of African-American experiences. Continuing her African-American folktales, she traveled back to her hometown of Eatonville in the late 1920’s. Her unique perspective and passion for anthropology allowed her to write a distinctive collection of stories. Particularly, her works called Mules and Men, is a collection of folktales from her journey to Eatonville and New Orleans. Alongside her work from the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston was an alchemist for modernism.  Specifically in the play, “How it Feels to be Colored Me,” Hurston advocated for African Americans through a new form. Moreover, Hurston wrote the novel “Their Eyes are Watching God,” which incorporates her childhood experiences. No one had ever written a book like this before. Hurston was revolutionary in helping to protect the rights of the African Americans and share their struggles. She continues to influence several writers today, including Alice Walker, who shared her love for Zora through a her novel, The Colour Purple.

View the great video that explains the connection Alice Walker had to Zora Neale Hurston’s life and art: Alice Walker Shines Light on Zora Neale Hurston

 

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