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Theme for English B -- Langston Hughes

       
(Poem #1637) Theme for English B
 The instructor said,

     Go home and write
     a page tonight.
     And let that page come out of you --
     Then, it will be true.

 I wonder if it's that simple?
 I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
 I went to school there, then Durham, then here
 to this college on the hill above Harlem.
 I am the only colored student in my class.
 The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem
 through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
 Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
 the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
 up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

 It's not easy to know what is true for you or me
 at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I'm what
 I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
 hear you, hear me -- we two -- you, me, talk on this page.
 (I hear New York too.) Me -- who?
 Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
 I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
 I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
 or records -- Bessie, bop, or Bach.
 I guess being colored doesn't make me NOT like
 the same things other folks like who are other races.
 So will my page be colored that I write?
 Being me, it will not be white.
 But it will be
 a part of you, instructor.
 You are white --
 yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
 That's American.
 Sometimes perhaps you don't want to be a part of me.
 Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
 But we are, that's true!
 As I learn from you,
 I guess you learn from me --
 although you're older -- and white --
 and somewhat more free.

 This is my page for English B.
-- Langston Hughes
       1951

Writing about writing is overdone to the point where it has almost become a
cliche - but that is not to say that the genre has not produced some
excellent poems. Indeed, if the old aphorism to "write what you know" is
true, poetry is surely one subject that poets are uniquely qualified to
write about. ("There's nothing to writing", as Walter Smith famously
remarked, "All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open up a vein.")

In today's poem, Hughes reexamines the age old topic of whether a poem
is actually two different poems when viewed in the context the writer's
experiences and that of the reader's, and the inevitable follow up about
what that says about the "validity" of the poem. This is a poem on two
levels, though - not a clever but sterile Metaphysical conceit on the
Nature of Truth, or a Romantic intertwining of Truth and Beauty, but a
deeply personal narrative that speaks truth even while questioning it, that
communicates with the reader in the very act of wondering whether such
communication is possible.

And above all, the poem's genius lies in the way its "voice" retains a
certain "English B" naivete, a diffidence that draws the reader in right
from the beginning, and prevents the poem from becoming sententious or
preachy when it draws into its conclusion and moves from questions to
statements. In the hands of a lesser poet, this poem could well have fallen
flat - indeed, the lack of a metrical structure and the banality of the
subject might well have led me to wonder just why this was even considered
poetry. Instead, I am left marvelling - as I often have occasion to do - at
the way in which a good poet can touch even the most timeworn of themes with
an indefinable, magical *something*, and leave it glowing with life.

martin

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There's a biography after Poem #410

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