On the Overlaps between Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks
The Front Yard Blues
On the Overlaps between Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks
The poetry of Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks share much in common, with overlaps in topic and technique. Both tackle themes of racial dynamics and class struggles, and both embody different speakers and personae to convey their ideas. A signature of both of their works is the use of narrative to discuss the Black experience, in particular exploring the nonchalant attitude toward death and danger as a response to oppression. While Hughes’s poetry is directly intertwined with blues music, describing the music itself, Brooks’s poetry is not, yet it still contains Blues elements, both in subject matter and in its rhythmic quality. By analyzing Hughes’s “The Weary Blues,” as well as Brooks’s “a song in the front yard,” and looking at her shorter poem “We Real Cool,” I demonstrate how the narrative aspect of their poetry functions, how their subject matter overlaps, and how through both their language and form, the musicality shines through.
“The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes takes the reader into the bluesy world of Lenox Avenue in Harlem. Through the rich sonic descriptions of the music itself, this jazz-filled atmosphere comes to life, and hints at a deeper pain with which the Black musician is struggling. There are multiple layers to this poem. Firstly, there are multiple voices at play throughout. The main speaker narrates the scene of Harlem, describing what they are observing to the reader. The second voice, the musician singing about his troubles, interjects midway through the poem, as indicated by quotation marks. In addition, there also seems to be a third voice introduced in the last five lines, which focuses on the musician after his performance, when he’s about to go to sleep. This third change in speaker is indicated through a shift in both structure and rhyme pattern, bringing the reader into the mind of the performer. Nonetheless, the main speaker is an observer of the street musician, deeply affected by the emotive quality of the music. When the speaker announces that they heard this music “the other night,” the reader can surmise that the performance had a significant impact on the listener, as they’re still thinking about it days later.1 The poem is overall inherently musical, with the musician as the main focus and subject. Through both the imagery and descriptive language of the music being performed, as well as through its rhythmic quality and crescendo-like sentence structure, the musical aspect comes alive.
The poem is framed by rhyming couplets, which appear throughout and create a flowing structural pattern. This pattern begins with the couplet, followed by a shorter third line, which rhymes with the third line after the next couplet. For example, the poem opens by setting the scene with the first rhyming couplet: “Droning a drowsy syncopated tune/ Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon.”2 The next line after that couplet introduces the main subject, the musician: “I heard a Negro play.”3 The next couplet returns to describing the external environment, and introduces a new end rhyme: “Down on Lenox Avenue the other night/ By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light.” (Hughes 4-5). Then, the following line pivots back to focusing on the musician and picks up the rhyme from line three: “He did a lazy sway.”4 This AAB, CCB rhyme scheme in the first six lines reads to me as an introduction, similar to how an intro in a song eases us into the music. That sixth line, punctuated with ellipses, then repeats: “He did a lazy sway… / He did a lazy sway . . . ”5 Although they are the same, respectively, these lines serve different functions; the first ends the introduction section, and the second leads into the beginning of the “tune of the Weary Blues,” in the next line.6 This beginning section almost entirely focuses on either the environment of the events, or on the physical movement of the musician, with their “rocking back and forth” and “lazy” swaying. But, as soon as we are introduced to the Weary Blues in the eighth line, the poem shifts with the descriptions now including more aural sounds of music.
Moreover, this shift is additionally backed by the repetition of “O Blues!” and “Sweet Blues!” in the third lines after the couplet, rather than the rhyming third lines in the first section of the poem. While the couplets continue(with one notable exception), the lines after them display how the speaker is being moved by the Blues music, with the repetition of “O Blues!” and its variation “Sweet Blues!” This repeated line almost acts as a reaction to the preceding couplet. For example, describing the musician, the speaker says, “With his ebony hands on each ivory key / He made that poor piano moan with melody,” and hearing this makes the speaker exclaim “O Blues!”7 This is also the first signal of the poem’s emotive growth, as the speaker is internalizing the sadness that the musician is displaying through his music.
The third structural shift occurs when the musician interjects and sings his song, marked off in quotations at the end of the first stanza. This part of the poem is completely about the melancholy music itself, with the subject matter focusing on the song’s expression of loneliness and wishing for death. The couplets are functioning here as descriptors, while instead of a short third line to follow it, it’s replaced by the lyrics of the song. To me, this is the climactic part of the poem, as the reader now is hearing directly from the musician, rather than hearing solely descriptions about the musician. After the song, there is a stanza break, and the poem moves into its last section. The final shift occurs in the last five lines, as the rhyme scheme shifts to AABBB, and shows what the singer is thinking as he falls asleep–something the main speaker, a listener on Lennox Avenue, could not have directly experienced.
The emotional curve of the poem expands alongside the musical description, for as we start to hear more about the music, we become increasingly aware of the deeper meanings that lie behind the music itself. There’s an emphasis on the “droning,” “drowsy,” and mellow element of the music, which aligns with the “lazy sway” and “rocking” of the performer on his “rickety stool.”8 Hughes loads the poem with sonic descriptions, through the onomatopoeia of the “thump” of the foot, to the musician who makes the piano “moan,” while his low voice holds a “melancholy tone.”9 Additionally, Hughes paints a melancholic scene, where the external world is reflective of the blues music, with the pale and dull lighting exuding from the old gaslight. The emotive curve peaks, though, when the speaker says the music is “coming from a black man’s soul.”10 This line is the exception to the couplet structure, standing instead as a single line. The poem’s subject matter focuses on the struggles that Black people endure, and the resulting mental torments that those struggles inflict. There’s something inherently emotional about Blues music, where the singer is free to release the pain they have endured. The blues genre was created by Black people; the music is the medium in which Black people can bear their soul and convey what they’ve been through. It’s a communal experience to engage in blues music, to absorb the hardships and collective pain the musician is sharing, which is why the speaker moved to exclaim “O Blues!” This emotional curve crescendos and expands as the musician begins to sing, and it’s interesting how Hughes integrates the lyrics into the poem with its own rhyme scheme and flow, separating it from the rest of the poem and giving the musician the space to express himself. The lyrics of the song aren’t hyperbolized, for they represent what the musician is feeling. When he sings that he “ain’t got nobody in all this world” and that he “can’t be satisfied,” wishing that he “had died,” those are reflective of his true feelings.11 These feelings surpass the performance itself, for even when he’s falling asleep, the Weary Blues “echoed through his head.”12 The poem ends with the singer asleep “like a rock of a man that’s dead.”13 The resignation to death and the intrigue of danger and recklessness is a common theme that’s also seen in Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry.
The musicality of “The Weary Blues” is not only defined by the description of the music, but also in how the poem is constructed and its overall blues structure. The syntax of the two long couplet lines followed by the short snappy line creates this growing crescendo, which is abruptly cut off by the short line. This long phrase to short phrase, jazz-like triplet pattern, allows the poem to embody a natural rhythmic flow. The use of the drawn-out “O” vowel throughout the poem accompanies this melancholy wailing and moaning, with the: “droning,” “drowsy,” “O,” “tone,” “moan.” This drawn-out vowel sound is especially emphasized when read aloud, which Langston Hughes exhibits in a 1958 televised reading of this poem, while a jazz band plays behind him. The repetition of the triplet sentence phrases that build and pull back, combined with the repetition of the vowel sounds and sonic descriptions in the language, make this poem extraordinary musical.
Like “The Weary Blues,” Gwendolyn Brooks’s “a song in the front yard” focuses its narrative aspect on a specific character. Here, the speaker is an adolescent girl who becomes increasingly fascinated in leaving her sheltered life and embarking on a more rebellious path. The poem consists of four stanzas, with the first two having a balanced four lines in each stanza, the third having eight lines, and the last stanza returning to the four-line pattern. Rhythmically, the first three stanzas follow an ABCC rhyme scheme, whereas the last stanza shifts to AABB. While, unlike in “The Weary Blues,” the entire poem is in one speaker’s voice, the use of pronouns is compelling: Each four-line stanza uses only “I” pronouns, discussing the speaker’s wants and desires. However, in the third stanza, the only stanza with eight lines, the discussion moves to the world around the speaker, with the repetition of “they,” referring to the backyard children, and “she,” as the speaker recounts her mother’s input.14 The progression of the speaker throughout the poem is the most notable aspect. As the poem develops, her assertiveness grows, as she becomes increasingly intrigued by the rougher side of life.
On top of racial dynamics, Brooks’s poetry discusses themes of gender, sexuality, and class disparity. In the poem’s first lines, the speaker declares, “I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life./ I want a peek at the back.”15 Through the imagery of the front yard versus the back yard, the hierarchy of class structures is displayed. Unlike the front yard, where the “roses’” grow, the back yard is “rough and untended.”16 While the front yard is home to desirable and highly demanded flowers like roses, symbolizing the speaker herself, the back yard is home to undesirable weeds and is where the bad influences and “charity children” reside.17 This discernable difference between the two yards speaks to a hierarchy in class, indicating that the speaker is more affluent and sheltered than the other children, who are in the back and seen as lower in status.
The speaker has a childish curiosity about the back yard, as she’s been cooped up in the front yard her whole life. While this curiosity is more tentative in the first stanza, where she just wants to “take a peek at the back,” it develops into a more active decision, where she demands that she wants to go to the back yard “now.”18 The tone is childish, with the repetition of “I want,” and her growing determination allows the poem to progress forward. The adolescent urge to commit an act of rebellion, to escape a sheltered life and be submerged in the risky and dangerous activities of bad influences is a realistic behavior. Additionally, the way that the speaker is purely focused on the back yard children’s reputation of having fun, rather than recognizing their misfortune and economic struggles is also very characteristic of a child.
The third stanza marks a shift, where the subject of the poem turns to focus on the reputation of the back-yard children and the gossip of the speaker’s mother. “They” (referring to the back-yard children) have a reputation of doing “wonderful things” and having “wonderful fun,” including staying out past 9:45 p.m.19 Despite her mother’s warnings and more mature perspective, the speaker is fully resigned and committed to the idea of becoming a “bad woman.”20 Rather than just wanting to observe the back yard, as she did in the beginning, she now wants to play an active part in the back yard community. She wants to physically transform, wanting to wear the clothing and embody the physical attributes of a bad woman, wishing to paint her face and don the “brave stockings of night-black lace.”21
The whole poem describes a gradual loss of innocence and succumbing to the desire of recklessness and danger. It focuses on the idea of yearning and the bubbling of a desire, a young girl wanting to take control of her life in a world that, perhaps, wishes to decide her life for her. The speaker symbolizes innocence, with her sheltered lifestyle. But her desire to put on black lace stockings is an erasure of her purity, as black is the antithesis to white, which represents that purity. Additionally, the floral imagery speaks to her sexuality, and the announcement that “a girl gets sick of a rose” directly aligns with her virginal, sheltered, and pure character.22 A rose is a tidy and tightly petaled flower, and her sickness is representative of her wishing to explore her sexuality and lose her innocence. The musicality of this poem lies in the consistent rhyme pattern and repetition of pronouns and phrases, such as “I want,” “they,” and “my mother.” The narrative crescendo alongside this rhythmic and repetitive quality allows it to move and flow, embodying a musical shape.
Another Gwendolyn Brooks poem that speaks to the themes of youth culture, recklessness, the resignation to death, also with a unique rhythmic quality, is “We Real Cool.” The poem consists of four stanzas with only two lines in each stanza. The repetition of “We” occurs throughout, often seen in an enjambment. Additionally, there’s an interesting rhyme scheme that occurs midway through each line. The lengths of each line are short and balanced, containing three syllables each, such as in the first and last lines: “We real cool” and “We die soon.”23 There’s repeated alliteration that adds to the musicality in the phrases “lurk late,” “strike straight,” “sing sin,” and “Jazz June.”24 The rhyme, syntax, and repetition combine to produce a very musical rhythm, with a clear beat and pulse. The whole poem is jazzy and sulky, with an almost syncopated beat, thanks to the enjambment of “We” at the end of each line. The subject matter falls in the same thematic area as both “a song in the front yard” and “The Weary Blues.” In this poem, the speaker is from the perspective of the “back yard,” speaking about a group of sinning young people who have left school and go out late drinking, succumbing to the idea of death. Narratively, the way Brooks sets this poem up with a note about the characters and the scene, “The Pool Players/Seven at The Golden Shovel,” reminds me of how Hughes draws the reader into the narrative of his poetry, setting the external scene before delving inward.”25 All three of these poems speak to each other, and the influence of the elder Hughes is certainly seen in Brooks’s work. Not only do all three poems overlap in subject matter and use of narrative and characters, but they all have a distinct musical aspect, even if the content doesn’t clearly discuss music.
Considering the friendship between the two poets, there are evident connections and overlaps within their work. Both of their poetry expresses the pressures of being Black, Brooks explaining a more youthful perspective of a pressure to drop out of school and be reckless, and Hughes describing the later mental repercussions of that life—an ultimate resignation towards death. The content of their poetry reminds me of James Baldwin’s writing on Black oppression in The Fire Next Time, in which he explains that young black children, specifically boys, were restricted to two choices: to become a criminal or to join the church. This oppression and restriction of personal choice in a white world took a great mental toll on Baldwin, as I imagine it did on both Hughes and Brooks. Just as blues music is a source of expression for Black musicians struggling under the same oppressive forces, poetry became a source of expression for Hughes and Brooks, who through their poetry were able to create music in language and rhyme, bringing the essence of Blues and Jazz to the page.
- LangstonHughes, “The Weary Blues,” Poetry Foundation, reprinted from The Collected Works of Langston Hughes (University of Missouri Press, 1987), 4.
- Hughes, “The Weary Blues,” 1-2.
- Hughes, “The Weary Blues,” 3).
- Hughes, “The Weary Blues,” 6
- Hughes, “The Weary Blues,” 6-7.
- (Hughes, the speaker exclaim “O Blues!”” 8.
- Hughes, “The Weary Blues,” 9-11.
- Hughes, “The Weary Blues,” 6,1, 13.
- Hughes, “The Weary Blues,” 10, 17.
- Hughes, “The Weary Blues,” 15.
- Hughes, “The Weary Blues,” 19, 28, 30.
- Hughes, “The Weary Blues,” 34.
- Hughes, “The Weary Blues,” 35.
- Gwendolyn Brooks, “a song in the front yard,” The Poetry Foundation, reprinted from Selected Poems (Harper & Row, 1963), 9-13.
- Brooks, “a song in the front yard,” 1-2.
- Brooks, “a song in the front yard,” 3.
- Brooks, “a song in the front yard,” 7.
- Brooks, “a song in the front yard,” 2, 5.
- Brooks, “a song in the front yard,” 9, 10, 12.
- (Brooks, “a song in the front yard,” 18.
- Brooks, Brooks, “a song in the front yard,” 19-20.
- Brooks, “a song in the front yard,” 4.
- Brooks, “We Real Cool,” The Poetry Foundation, reprinted from Selected Poems (Harper & Row, 1963), 1, 8.
- Brooks, “We Real Cool,” 3-5,7.
- Brooks, “We Real Cool,” i-ii.