During the Harlem Renaissance, improvisation and syncopation also combined with poetry to create jazz poetry. A quality of improvisation, for both music and poetry, is its flexibility in expression. Langston Hughes described the appeal of improvisation, saying, “Jazz is a great big sea. It washes up all kinds of fish and shells and spume and waves with a steady old beat, or off-beat.”
This improvisational attitude is seen in Hughes’s Montage of a Dream Deferred, a long poem composed of 87 smaller poems. All of these poems play and improvise on the theme of the African Americans’ deferred American dream. The idea of the deferred, or delayed, American dream refers to the barriers that many African Americans faced as they sought to attain a better life. These barriers resulted from the widespread racism that existed in the United States at the time. Many aspects of Montage of a Dream Deferred improvise on the theme of the deferred American dream through repeated refrains, exclamations, and thoughts throughout the work.
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Even the titles of Hughes’s jazz poetry improvise on the theme and on each other. For example, the first poem of Montage is titled “Dream Boogie.” Similarly, other poems in the montage are titled “Easy Boogie,” “Boogie 1 a.m.,” “Lady’s Boogie,” “Nightmare Boogie,” and “Dream Boogie: Variation.” In addition, each “Boogie” poem takes a piece of the previous poem and improvises upon it. The lines “You’ll hear their feet / Beating out and beating out a—” from “Dream Boogie” are picked up by “Easy Boogie” and become “That steady beat / Walking walking walking / Like marching feet.”
Along with Hughes, other writers used jazz as a theme in some of their poems. Examples of jazz-based poems include “Jazz Fantasia” and “Honky Tonk in Cleveland, Ohio” by Carl Sandburg, as well as “let my spirit fly in time” by Sandra Maria Esteves
Like improvisation, syncopation also plays a distinct part in jazz poetry. Meter and rhythm are defining aspects of poetry. However, standard poetic rhythms, such as iambic pentameter, are extremely regulated. Note that every other syllable in the lines below is stressed, emphasized by the boldface type:
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
(from Macbeth by William Shakespeare)
In contrast, the influence of syncopation on the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance produced an irregular rhythm:
Good morning, daddy!
Ain’t you heard?
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred?
(from “Dream Boogie” by Langston Hughes)
Notice that there are no distinct measures or beats in the jazz poetry example and that the syncopation plays with the location of the emphasized syllable, as in “dream deferred.” Look for more jazz-inspired interplay of syncopation and improvisation in the lesson’s reading selection, excerpts from Hughes’s Montage of a Dream Deferred.
How the video helps you better understand how diction is instrumental in strengthening the central theme.
How the auditory clues such as stress patterns, enunciation, and the lengths of pauses between sentences helps you better understand the content.
I’m gonna buy two new suits
All I want is
one more bottle of gin.
All I want is to see
my furniture paid for.
Two new suits, one more bottle of gin, fully paid-for furniture—these are all minor variations on the American dream of a better life.
Hughes uses syncopated rhythms and improvisation-inspired elements to interpret and represent jazz music. Like Winold Reiss’s painting “Interpretation of Harlem Jazz,” Hughes’s poetry is an interpretation of one art form, while jazz music is another. As one of the voices for the “New Negro” spoken of by Alain Locke and painted by Reiss, Hughes portrays the changing African American experience as one of evolving culture, aspirations, and artistic expression through his interpretation of jazz as a poetic style.
Hughes implies that the residents of Harlem and other budding black cultural centers across the country want the same American dream as their white audiences. Hughes shows through his jazz poetry, as Reiss showed in his jazz painting, that the American dream of the New Negro is the same dream that has existed since the founding of the United States: to have a better life. The difference between the white and black American dreams was one of accessibility; the white dream was within grasp, the black dream deferred.
It should have syncopated rhythms.
It can have improvisational asides and a call-and-response composition.
“The Museum of Unnatural History” in Zora Neale Hurston’s essay is a parody of the Museum of Natural History, a large museum in New York. In describing common stereotypes of nonwhite Americans, Hurston emphasizes that the United States does not have a cohesive society and that not all of its citizens are fully appreciated or understood. When she notes, “It is assumed that all non-Anglo-Saxons are uncomplicated stereotypes. Everybody knows all about them,” she is explaining that the white community believes it knows all there is to know about minority populations. She argues that, in fact, the white community is not doing its part to understand the complexities of various minority populations.
Hurston’s stereotype of African Americans is purposefully unrealistic in the extreme. She describes a caricature:
Both of these mechanical toys are built so that their feet eternally shuffle, and their eyes pop and roll. Shuffling feet and those popping, rolling eyes denote the Negro, and no characterization is genuine without this monotony.
According to these stereotypes, African Americans are not intelligent or moral people, a blatantly false statement. Later in her essay, Hurston discusses the need to fight the stereotypes in order to prevent those incorrect views from becoming more widespread. For that to happen, Hurston argues that white-owned publishing companies, which only published stories with white main characters, should also publish stories about realistic minority characters.
The tone of Hurston’s essay is calm and composed, yet she is still determined and assertive. She does not use excessively formal diction, making her language accessible to her readers. However, she uses loaded words to emphasize the importance of her argument, as in the statement, “A great principle of national art has been violated.” This sentence stresses the importance of combatting the stereotypes that Hurston believes have pervaded the American public’s mentality.
Cullen believed that art transcended race and that it could minimize the distance between different communities. A romantic poet, Cullen wrote within traditional poetic conventions, a product of his education. He was generally attracted to romantic themes, encouraging African American poets to work within English conventions as he did. Cullen called on poets such as Langston Hughes not to be “racial artists” and to omit jazz rhythms and other forms of experimentation from their poetry. In Cullen’s mind, this change would help eliminate the racial divide in poetry.
For a Lady I Know”
Countee Cullen is purposefully vague when discussing the woman in “For a Lady I Know.” He does not name her, only referring to the subject as “she” and “her.” Because of this vagueness, the poem could be describing any white woman’s potential view of race relations. However, “she” is most likely an upper-class woman who is used to having others, presumably African Americans, wait on her.
Cullen uses traditional poetic devices, including alliteration and a regular abab rhyme scheme in his poem. He describes the woman as someone who “lies late” and expects “cherubs” to perform “celestial chores.” Because of his training in traditional white academia, Cullen was one of the few Harlem Renaissance writers who adhered to traditional poetic conventions. Still, his themes of racial struggle and his position in the African American community cement the role he played in the Harlem Renaissance.
The diction in Cullen’s poem is formal and somewhat traditional: word choices such as “cherub” and “celestial” evoke older, romantic poetry. However, the tone of his poem is much more biting than was typical of most romantic works. The harsh diction in the poem adds sarcastic and bitter nuances. For example, he notes that the lady, a term denoting respect and high status, snores, which is not expected of someone in her position. And beginning the poem with “She even thinks” suggests that the woman is audacious or brash enough to think a certain way.
They [publishers] will sponsor anything that they believe will sell. They shy away from romantic stories about Negroes and Jews because they feel that they know the public indifference to such works, unless the story or play involves racial tension.
In her essay, Hurston attacks the illogical perceptions of minorities by white Americans. For example, she describes their lack of interest in learning about the “internal emotions and behavior of the minorities.” She states some stereotypical views that white Americans have toward minorities and how they feel that African Americans and other races are not intelligent, civilized, or moral:
Yes, he certainly knows his higher mathematics, and he can read Latin better than many white men I know, but I cannot bring myself to believe that he understands a thing that he is doing. It is all an aping of our culture. All on the outside. You are crazy if you think that it has changed him inside in the least. Turn him loose, and he will revert at once to the jungle. He is still a savage, and no amount of translating Virgil and Ovid is going to change him. In fact, all you have done is to turn a useful savage into a dangerous beast.
Hurston also describes how white Americans perceive African Americans as animals who can mirror the (white) American lifestyle but cannot comprehend or blend into it.
In her essay “What White Publishers Won’t Print” Hurston describes how Anglo-Saxons think that they know everything about African Americans and show no interest in learning anything about their “internal lives and emotions.” She emphasizes how white Americans have formed certain common stereotypes regarding nonwhite Americans, which is why they fail to comprehend and appreciate the true skills of African Americans and other racial minorities:
I have been amazed by the Anglo-Saxon’s lack of curiosity about the internal lives and emotions of the Negroes, and for that matter, any non-Anglo-Saxon peoples within our borders, above the class of unskilled labor.
Similarly, in his poem “For a Lady I Know,” Cullen emphasizes the arrogant and self-important attitude that white Americans have toward African Americans. He uses imagery of cherubs in heaven to describe how a lady belonging to the upper class thinks that her “poor black” servants would wait on her even after death. Cullen shows that people from the upper class (white Americans) believe that Africans Americans can never have a bright future.
From her superior attitude toward African Americans, it is clear that the lady that Cullen describes in his poem could belong to the group of readers who would not be interested in reading stories about educated minorities.
This year, maybe, do you think I can graduate?
I’m already two years late.Dropped out six months when I was seven,
a year when I was eleven,
then got put back when we come North.
To get through high high school at twenty’s kind of late-
But maybe this year I can graduate.
The poem also depicts how African Americans had to keep postponing their needs with a hope that someday they would be able to obtain what they desired:
Maybe now I can have that white enamel stove
I dreamed about when we first fell in love
eighteen years ago.
But you know,
rooming and everything
cold-water flat and all that.
But now my daughter’s married
And my boy’s most grown-
quit school to work
and where we’re moving
there ain’t no stove-
Maybe I can buy that white enamel stove!
However, despite their deferred dreams, the poem shows the refusal of African Americans to give up easily and let go of their dreams of a better life. Their dreams may have been delayed, but they did not lose hope.
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