Sunday, March 12, 2006

Critical responses to Hughes

I'm intrigued by several statements in Hughes' biographies (in both the Anthology and Poetics) which mention that academic critics were quite negative about his work. Poetics specifically says that Hughes' 1959 volume of Selected Poems was "dismissed in the New York Times ... for its apparent lack of literary sophistication." Poetics also says that academic critics calls Hughes' work simple-minded.

My reaction to that was just ... !!! Crazy critics!! I have loved reading Hughes' work, and find it to be incredibly personal, powerful, and ... universal. It's as if he captures our common history -- the injustice, constraints, hope, and future -- and knits these qualities together.

It would be easy to dismiss the negative critical reactions as racist, so I've gone looking for more information. Keeping in mind also that I'm not a poetry student and have never studied Hughes before, so I could be missing the academic point!

I found a wonderful mini-site from the New York Times that has an archive of actual reviews of Hughes' work from 1930 to 1996. Also on this site are recordings of Hughes reading his own work -- including a fantastic reading of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."

Poetics mentions a particularly scathing 1959 review of Selected Poems by James Baldwin, and the full review can be read here. Some excerpts that will give you a flavor for the review:
  • ... his book contains a great deal which a more disciplined poet would have thrown into the waste-basket.
  • I do not like all of "The Weary Blues," which copies, rather than exploits, the cadence of the blues ...
  • Hughes is an American Negro poet and has no choice but to be acutely aware of it. He is not the first American Negro to find the war between his social and artistic responsibilities all but irreconcilable.

Ouch! So, why did the critics (or Baldwin in particular) hate Hughes' work so much? The most interesting answer I could find is in this 1969 review of an album of poetry, read by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee (you may recall the wonderful actor Ossie Davis who died last year). The opener of this article captures it best ...

Critically, the most abused poet in America was the late Langston Hughes. Serious white critics ignored him, less serious ones compared his poetry to Cassius Clay doggerel, ands most black critics only grudgingly admired him. Some, like James Baldwin, were downright malicious about his poetic achievement. But long after Baldwin and the rest of us are gone, I suspect Hughes's poetry will be blatantly around, growing in stature until it is recognized for its genius.

Hughes's tragedy was double-edged: he was unashamedly black at a time when blackness was demode, and he didn't go much beyond one of his earliest themes, black is beautiful. He had the wit and intelligence to explore the black human condition in a variety of depths, but his tastes and selectivity were not always accurate, and pressures to survive as a black writer in a white society (and it was a miracle that he did for so long) extracted an enormous creative toll. Nevertheless, Hughes, more than any other black poet or writer, recorded faithfully the nuances of black life and its frustrations.

and ...

Critics have mistaken the simple form and language of Hughes's poetry for paucity of meaning. His real meanings are never that apparent and, in order to understand his poetry fully, one must have deep insight into ghetto life and psychology and an emotional tie.

To me, this really sums it up.

1 comment:

rodney k said...

What a wonderful collection of resources. thanks for posting this, and for sharing your reactions to Hughes and his critics.