Langston Hughes, “Dream Variations”

I have stated my desire to celebrate National Poetry Month by seeking and sharing poems about race. I love Langston Hughes’ work, but I think my reasons for sharing the poem I did on April 1 were more about my affinity for his youthful yearnings than about my promoting his poetry of race. To correct that, I offer today, his lyric of black and white, “Dream Variations.” Thank you to The Academy of American Poets.

Dream Variations

Langston Hughes, 19021967
To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently,
    Dark like me—
That is my dream!

To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance!  Whirl!  Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening . . .
A tall, slim tree . . .
Night coming tenderly
    Black like me.

I can’t help but notice the movement in this poem, the whirling and dancing, which of course, reminds me of my own work, Twirlyword.

The image above is a collage by Susan Anthony. I adore her work.

Starting Off Poetry Month By Talking About Race

There’s been a lot of chatter in my poetry networks lately about what obligations white poets have to talk and write about race.

Reginald Dwayne Betts started it off with this article “What It Is,” and his now infamous line, “Don’t write about being white,” which is a quote by Louis Simpson discussing Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems in 1963. You can imagine the kerfuffle. Sadly, a lot of people read the headlines, but not so many read the article.

  • This story “Should White Writers Write About Race” is a thoughtful response and expansion by Holly Karapetkova.
  • This article is Reginald’s response to the kerfluffle he started, and an explanation of the irony he sees and hears in many of the comments he’s read.

Both are worth your time, no matter what color your skin, no matter what race you identify with. Any amount of conversation on this topic is a good thing.

I’m a white woman. I live in a town where more people don’t look like me than do, which is not the case in most of the US. These are facts, but we may have opinions about them, too. I’m inviting my own version of a conversation about race with my 2015 International Poetry Cantos project, which is going to be as successful as it’s going to be, or not, but will be my best effort to reflect some of the cultures I see around me in my town.

This year for Poetry Month I’m going to search out poems about race, by white folks and poets of color, written about experiences in America. It will be an interesting — and I hope fun — project, even though I expect many of the poems won’t be pretty or nice, as they can’t possibly be if they are honest.

I’d like to start today with “Dillusion” by Langston Hughes, the first poem Knopf chose to send out for it’s annual “Poem A Day” project.  Read what Knopf’s Borzoi Reader has to say about the poem, and the accompanying letter that Hughes wrote in 1926, having dropped out of Columbia University which he found “generally unfriendly.”  I think there is something heartbreaking about the lines “Be kind to me, / Oh, great dark city.” I remember being alone in a big city in my twenties, wondering about poetry, sex, love, work, acceptance. We are often disillusioned in our early youth, as we notice our ideals not matching reality. In this poem, Hughes seems to know his city intimately and to know that it can hurt him. I wonder what won’t come again — youth, optimism, faith?


I would be simple again,
Simple and clean
Like the earth,
Like the rain,
Nor ever know,
Dark Harlem,
The wild laughter
Of your mirth
Nor the salt tears
Of your pain.
Be kind to me,
Oh, great dark city.
Let me forget.
I will not come
To you again.


Poetry and Jazz with Frank O’Hara and Billie Holiday

It’s not hard to understand why American poets might love jazz. The quintessential American music is the perfect companion language to American poetry.There are many fine collections of poetry about jazz, and these are just a couple I know of.

The Academy of American Poets offers a brief guide to Jazz Poetry, which it defines as “poetry necessarily informed by jazz music–that is, poetry in which the poet responds to a writes about jazz.” One of the poems cited is “The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes, which includes sounds and rhythms just begging to be sung and danced. There are also links there to other jazz poetry anthologies.

One of the characteristics of jazz poetry that makes it hard for me to reproduce it on my blog is the irregular line breaks and shaped stanzas that ensure the poem is read in with the syncopated swing of the music is inspires. One poem I’m going to risk it all for is another poem about Billie Holiday, this one called “The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara. I remember first reading this poem as a young oncology nurse working in San Francisco, something about the urban hustle and detail, the frenetic pacing of the language, which stops dead in its tracks on the news of Holiday’s death without even so much as a concluding period — something about this poem spoke to everything I was feeling.

The Day Lady Died

By Frank O’Hara 

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing


In related news, the Smithsonian launched Jazz Appreciation Month in April of 2002, which only seems right — poetry and jazz can share the month and each delight the other. The poster for this years JAM is shown at the top of this post.

Sing and dance and read some poetry, peeps!