Poetry Review, Langston Hughes, Theme for English B

8 Apr

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

These are a professor’s instructions for Langston Hughes at the beginning of his marvelous poem Theme for English B.  Langston wonders “if it’s that simple?”  I find this first question interesting because the instructions sound pretty simplistic–writing one page, making sure it comes out of you (meaning your experiences I suppose) does that make something true?  Can you write a page that isn’t from your experience somehow?   This isn’t really the theme  of the poem, but while this created a good work, sometimes having something coming out of you just makes something that is not really understandable to the world, after all there is such a thing as paying attention to your audience.

Anyway, in following these instructions, Hughes basically sets up a mini-biography (though at 22 I’d be surprised if anybody had more than a mini-biography anyway).  He emphasizes the things that everybody has in common–how he gets to his apartment from the school, the things he likes for Christmas (a pipe and records).  He likes to “eat, drink, sleep, and be in love….work, read, learn, and understand life.”  It’s kind of amazing how his explanation for life is as simple but true as the instructions he started this poem with.

And then he turns to race.  “I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like/the same things other folks like me who are other races.”    This is a complicated way of saying that race does not really influence the certain parts of his life–what he wants and what he likes.    However, after writing all the things he has in common with everybody else, he asks “So will my page be colored that I write?/Being me, it will not be white.”  It’s saying two things at once–first because he’s black, his writing will be perceived to be coming from a black experience even though he wrote only universal experiences up to this point,  also because he puts himself in his writing, the writing will become like him.  However, when the white instructor reads this poem, it will become whiter because the instructor can only read from his experience.

And by reading this poem, the instructor and the writer become part of each other.  An exchange that neither actively wants, but there it is.   That’s what is amazing about this poem.  In a one page assignment, in the simplest of language, Hughes sets up a thesis for the reason for writing–this exchange of self which makes the world better.  (“That’s American” Langston Hughes writes, meaning the interchanging of different experiences, part of the melting pot experience.)

We end with “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.”  Hughes sees learning as a two way process–teacher to student and back to the teacher again.

I must tell you though, that this isn’t a page that Hughes wrote as a student.   He was rather older, and this speaker’s experience is a little different than Hughes’s.  However, that ultimately doesn’t matter.  The point is that writing something true on a piece of paper is all good and fine, but the reader’s perception can twist that truth and change it depending what prejudices they have.  Just as a person may be a blank slate, the world will stamp them with certain characteristics based on prejudices as well.

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