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 . . . Read More
The ‘‘New Negro’’ and the Harlem Renaissance
In March 1925, Howard University professor, Alain Locke coined the term ‘‘The New Negro’’ for a special issue of Survey Graphic that emphasized and celebrated the diversity of black life in the United States. Of particular interest to Locke were the many examples of black art, literature, and intellectual thought that heralded a new life for black people and communities. Locke thought that this creative expression was an essential component of a progressive community in which black Americans contributed their talents and would then be recognized as contributing to the formation of one nation. Locke envisioned the ‘‘new Negro’’ as representative of greater self-respect and self-reliance. The new Negro was a black American who contributed to his social and cultural community and for Locke the center of this change was in Harlem.
The influx of southern black Americans . . . Read More
Free verse is verse with no discernable structure, rhyme scheme, or meter. Free verse allows the poet to fit the poetic line to the content of the poem. The poet is not restricted by the need to shape the poem to a particular meter but can instead create a varied or irregular rhythm and syntax, or sentence structure. Free verse is not the same as blank verse, which also does not use a rhyme scheme. Blank verse almost always adheres to iambic pentameter, while free verse relies on line breaks to create a rhythm.
Free verse was a popular style of poetic composition in the twentieth century and it was not uncommon for poets of Hughs’s time to compose in free verse. Whitman, to whom Hughes responds in this poem, is sometimes called the father of free verse. There is no pattern of formal rhyme or meter to ‘‘I, Too’’ and, instead, the irregular line breaks give the poem a songlike rhythm that is most pronounced when . . . Read More
Hughes’s poem ‘‘I, Too’’ explores the duality of identity that defined black life in the United States in the 1920s. Black Americans claimed citizenship in a country that denied black citizens the same rights that were provided to white citizens. The poet claims that he is an American and entitled to the same privileges as all other Americans, including the right to eat with Americans of any racial or ethnic background. ‘‘I, Too’’ shows the poet trying to establish his identity through the progress of the poem. In the beginning of the poem, the narrator embraces his right to sing America, the same as all other people who sing to celebrate America. Ironically, his identity as an American grows stronger each time he is cast out of American society. Each time he is excluded, the process reinforces his identity as an American, until he is finally strong enough to demand that he be recognized as an American. By the . . . Read More
The first stanza of ‘‘I, Too’’ consists of only one line, in which the speaker asserts that he is also celebrating being an American. The title, with its use of the word too suggests that the speaker is replying to another literary work. The emphasis in the line is on this word, since that is the most important word in this four-word line. In fact, ‘‘I, Too’’ is a response to Walt Whitman’s 1860 poem, ‘‘I Hear America Singing.’’ Whitman’s poem celebrates American patriotism. The poet lists a number of different professions, including a carpenter and a mason, all of whom sing about their happiness at being American. Hughes’s response is a reminder that black Americans also form part of this culture. By beginning with the singular personal pronoun, I, Hughes quickly establishes that the poet is also the subject of the poem. He also sings of the greatness of the United States just as Whitman’s singers of the . . . Read More
Though Alice Walker’s ‘‘Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning’’ is a meditation on forgiveness and its power, its autobiographical content naturally leads the reader to question what, exactly, is being forgiven. This curiosity arises from the strange context of the forgiveness that is granted. Certainly, it seems that grief and sadness would be the primary expressions expected of a widowed woman sitting beside her husband’s body. Deathbed forgiveness is the realm of the priest, of last rites and the dying man’s repentance, none of which are in evidence in the poem. What has transpired between husband and wife that forgiveness, rather than grief, is at the forefront of this deathbed scene? This question is somewhat erroneous. It is important to note that Willie Lee’s wife does not actually forgive him. Instead, she bids her dead husband ‘‘good night,’’ addressing him as she does in the title of the poem. It is the poem’s speaker, Walker, . . . Read More
The term free verse is a catchall phrase for poetry that is not written in any sort of metrical form, which is the mindful arrangement of words according to their stressed and unstressed syllables, often in defined patterns. ‘‘Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning’’ is written in free verse. Other attributes typical to poems written in free verse are that they do not rhyme (or do so in irregular patterns), have erratic line breaks, and are written in colloquial, or everyday, language. All of these characteristics are also found in ‘‘Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning.’’ This style, which is actually a calculated lack of style, is typical of the time period in which the poem was written. Free verse was extremely popular with American poets throughout the middle period of the twentieth century.
Enjambment defines the way in . . . Read More
The main theme of ‘‘Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning’’ is that of forgiveness. The speaker states that her mother’s words at her father’s deathbed have allowed her to realize that the only way to repair the damage that people do to one another is by forgiving them. The speaker obviously sees her mother’s statement as a declaration of absolution for all of the hard times that no doubt accompany a marriage. To the speaker, this is an awe-inspiring act, one that she feels has wider implications for her father’s return. This very Christian concept of forgiveness and redemption is related to the belief that all the people who have ever lived will be resurrected from their graves and judged when the world comes to an end. This may be the ‘‘morning’’ that the speaker’s mother is referring to. In this sense, the word morning is metaphorical, indicating a spiritual awakening rather than a . . . Read More
‘‘Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning’’ is a fifteen-line poem that consists of only fifty-six words. Almost a fifth of the poem is comprised of the title phrase. Additionally, the poem is only two sentences long. The first sentence describes what the speaker has seen, and the second relates what the speaker has subsequently learned.
The first line begins with the speaker stating that she is looking at her father, who is dead. With the finality that accompanies death, the speaker’s mother is described as speaking to her dead husband in a congenial and matter-of-fact tone. Much is made of the fact that the speaker’s mother is not crying; nor is she angry or happy. This stress is derived from the noted absence of any strong emotion aside from the courtesy that would be extended even to a stranger. Rather than cry over his body, bid her husband goodbye, or tell him how much he was loved, the speaker’s . . . Read More
Cervantes has created many images in her poem ‘‘Freeway 280.’’ Reading her poem is almost like watching a slide show or thumbing through the pages of an old photograph album. In using the vivid images, the poet invites readers into her poem through their sense of sight. These images are, however, much more than snapshots. By examining the images and reflecting on the effects they produce, readers gain insights into the deeper meaning of the poem. This is how the images are transformed into symbols.
In the first stanza, Cervantes begins by offering a pleasant image of a potentially quiet and somewhat typical neighborhood—a cluster of small, probably older houses. The houses could be cottages that once belonged to a small town, and then as time went by a larger city grew up around the neighborhood. The first impression this image offers is that of a cozy, picturesque neighborhood. The small houses are graced with flowers, such as climbing roses that hug the . . . Read More