Poetry offers readers a multifaceted opportunity to experience the world in a different way. Poetry can create beauty. It can also be witty and entertaining, sometimes even comedic. But perhaps poetry’s most important functions are to educate readers about injustice and to rouse readers to actions that can change the world. On occasion, poetry illuminates what is hidden, ignored, or just so distasteful that it is buried in the reader’s unconscious mind. Throughout much of the twentieth century, racism was one of those topics that too few people discussed and that far too many people tolerated. Poetry is one tool that can lead to discussions about racism, and perhaps, to change. In his poetry, Langston Hughes is able to depict reality in such a way that readers emerge from their reading of his poetry with knowledge about a world they may not have directly experienced in their lives.
A quick and superficial reading of Hughes’s ‘‘I, Too’’ leaves readers with the impression that the poet foresees a time when all Americans will sit together around a table, happy to be at last joined together in a nation in which white and black coexist harmoniously. The truth of the poem is more complex than this and requires that readers carefully consider Hughes’s words. They reveal a deeper truth and a warning: once the black narrator has grown strong, whites will no longer dare to exclude him. The joining of black and white people envisioned in the poem is not a willing union, but one that occurs because black Americans will no longer tolerate segregation.
James Finn Cotter claims in his essay ‘‘The Truth of Poetry,’’ published inThe Hudson Review, that ‘‘the truth of poetry is not in reciting facts but in creating veracity.’’ Poetry is not autocratic; rather it must create a reality that readers can locate in the images that the poet produces. This production of reality is even more important for poetry that seeks to expose injustice. Cotter explains that a poem must ‘‘be true to itself.’’ A poem must be honest enough to ‘‘convince me and to capture my attention with its thought, emotion, imagery, and language.’’ An honest poem leaves the reader feeling changed in some way, having experienced an awakening. An important function of poetry, according to Cotter, is to remind readers of ‘‘the injustices and stupidities of small-minded men,’’ who seek to keep other men in their ‘‘place.’’ Poetry, then, does more than offer truth; it illuminates injustice and impeaches those who continue to endorse discrimination. This is what Hughes accomplishes in his image of two separate tables, one table defined by privilege and one table defined by injustice. Hughes is not satisfied to know his ‘‘place’’ and promises a fight when he is strong enough to seize what is rightfully his. ‘‘I, Too’’ reveals the truth about ending segregation— that joining together at one table would not be easy, but it would be deserved, as the last line of the poem promises.
When Hughes wrote ‘‘I, Too’’ in the 1920s the world was a long way from ending segregation, but the poet was able to imagine the day when that change would come. In Robert W. Blake’s 1990 essay ‘‘Poets on Poetry: Writing and the Reconstruction of Reality,’’ published in the English Journal, he claims that when a poet creates poetry, he or she ‘‘reconstructs reality.’’ The poet uses his or her imagination to create a new reality for the reader. The hope and expectation is that eventually the imagined reality will become a new reality. This is also what Percy Bysshe Shelley argues in A Defense of Poetry, first published in 1840, when he claims that poetry does not simply reflect the world, it changes the world. Poetry makes things happen. When Hughes weaves his narrative about merging two separate Americas, one for blacks and one for whites, he is envisioning a future changed and a society created with equality for both races. When, at the end of ‘‘I, Too,’’ black and white people sit together at the table, it is in the created world of the poet, one that he insists will align with reality. The creation of a new world is what Shelley emphasizes when he writes of the social importance of poetry, which plays upon the subconscious and thus can transcend ideology and can create ‘‘anew the universe,’’ a universe without unjust laws. This is because, for Shelley, poets ‘‘are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society.’’ Poetry is more than beauty, much more than just words; it is useful and beneficial to society because it removes distinctions like class, gender, and by extension, race. According to Shelley, a person must possess the ability to imagine the pain of others, to ‘‘put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.’’ Poetry allows readers to feel the pain of the poet— in this case, to experience the anguish of being excluded from the same world in which whites are given privilege and blacks are denied the same opportunities to succeed.
Poetry provides an opportunity for the reader to imagine another world. Hughes creates that kind of opportunity when he allows readers to imagine the pain of being excluded and then to see a tomorrow in which the poet will be included. Shelley claims that for a ‘‘man, to be greatly good, [he] must imagine intensely and comprehensively.’’ The poet’s ability, as defined by Shelley, is not only to behold ‘‘intensely the present at it is,’’ or as it should be, according to moral laws, but to hold forth the promise of ‘‘the future in the present.’’ The poet allows readers to envision a better world, in which an unjust world can be changed, just as Hughes does in ‘‘I, Too.’’ Because selfish men are reluctant to change unjust laws, poetry is, as Shelley claims, ‘‘never more to be desired than at periods’’ when ‘‘an excess of selfish and calculating principle’’ exceeds the laws of human nature. It is the poet who fulfills the need for change by creating poetry that illuminates the injustice of the world and the need for a better world. The poet, then, is the bridge from inhumanity to humanity.
The poet’s ability to use his art to expose the truth is perhaps his greatest obligation. Poetry is in the unique position of being able to tell the truth, even when the truth might be unpleasant or even dangerous. Not all readers take the time to understand the nuances of poetry; therefore, the poet is sometimes able to cleverly disguise meaning, using the language of poetry. The meaning can be confused and explained away as simply a poem misunderstood. For example, Andrew Marvell did this in his poem, ‘‘An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland.’’ Because the ode is a poetic form used to celebrate greatness, it is not immediately clear to the reader that Marvell is being sarcastic in his faint praise of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. The Horatian ode, in particular, is reserved for praising and honoring a great man. However, in this ode Marvell compares Cromwell to Caesar, who was assassinated as a tyrant. Marvell’s depiction of the deposed King Charles I, as he meets his death on the scaffold, is one of noble kingship. Cromwell might have been confused about whether Marvell was praising him, but scholars who dissect the poem know that Marvell was doing quite the opposite. Since Marvell did not lose his head over his ode, presumably Cromwell did not probe the poem’s truth too closely. In his essay, Blake argues that ‘‘poetry is for telling people what they hadn’t noticed or thought about before.’’ Poetry brings injustice into public view and exposes the inequities of human existence. Whether in exposing a tyrant for the murder of a king or in exposing prejudice, poets use words, says Blake, to ‘‘reveal what people and living creatures are really like.’’ Readers can see the truth and the injustice in Hughes’s words. Therefore they can also envision the need to change the world.
In The Defence of Poesy, sixteenth-century poet Sir Philip Sidney defends the work of poets to the Puritan writer Stephen Gosson who, in his 1579 text Schoole of Abuse, argues that poetry is a waste of time, that it is composed of lies, and that it teaches sinful practices. Sidney’s response to these claims argues that the role of literature in a civilized society is to educate and to inspire people to undertake ethical and virtuous actions That is also the hope four hundred years later. Hughes wrote ‘‘I, Too’’ after being denied several opportunities in Genoa, Italy, to board ships bound for the United States. White crews did not want to work with a black man. ‘‘I, Too’’ is a testimony to the need for change, for all humankind to recognize the rights of others. The best way to comprehend this need for change is to visualize a world in which equality is denied. In an essay for the English Journal that argues for the importance of reading modern poetry, Virginia M. Schauble suggests that poetry ‘‘can actually be a voice of rare clarity.’’ Poetry allows readers to experience a world they have never known, a world in which people are oppressed and denied basic human rights. In her essay, ‘‘Reading American Modernist Poetry with High-School Seniors,’’ Schauble points out that poetry’s value ‘‘is not merely aesthetic’’; instead, poetry ‘‘speaks a word counter to cultural expectations.’’ It forces readers to think about difference and about changing the world. Poetry creates change and, as Sidney argued so many centuries earlier, it urges readers to ethical actions.
Poetry has an important role in the modern world, just as it did in the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries when Sidney and Shelley each argued so eloquently for its worth in their worlds, which were also filled with conflict and injustice. Poetry can teach readers about truth, but it can also teach readers about the difference between right and wrong. Poetry can create the expectation of change and the desire to make that change real. Most importantly, poetry is a way to learn the truth about the world we live in. ‘‘I, Too’’ both reveals injustice and offers the promise of change. As such, the poem inspired black readers in Hughes’s day to anticipate the day when they too would join their brethren at the American table. For those who endorsed segregation, it issued a warning that they dare not resist this change.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Langston Hughes, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009
Sheri Metzger Karmiol, Critical Essay on ‘‘I Too,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.