April is Poetry Month: Poem a Day #1

Taken from the Knopf site; direct link below.


Welcome to Poetry Month — and, while we’re at it, to the 100th anniversary of the Knopf publishing imprint. In 1925, when the house was not yet in its teen years, the work of the young poet Langston Hughes was introduced to editor Blanche Knopf through the writer, photographer, and Harlem Renaissance enthusiast Carl Van Vechten. Hughes’s first book, The Weary Blues, was published by Knopf in 1926. This year, we’ve reissued that groundbreaking volume. Hughes was only in his twenties, but already knew he had something important to say — he “manages remarkably to take Whitman’s American ‘I’ and write himself into it,” says the poet Kevin Young, in a new foreword to the collection which appears alongside Van Vechten’s original introduction. This commemorative Weary Blues edition happily appears at the same time as the long-awaited Selected Letters of Langston Hughes, assiduously edited and contextualized by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel, in order to give us a virtual “life in letters.”

We offer here a poem from the book, followed by an excerpt of a letter from around the time of its publication, written by Langston to Van Vechten from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where Langston was studying, after having earlier spent a year at Columbia University in 1921-1922. He found Columbia “generally unfriendly,” as Rampersad and Roessel put it, and dropped out to pursue odd jobs. Before going to Lincoln, he had already begun to build a community in Harlem which would become central to his life. This letter is characteristically lively in its tone — breezy, warm, and alert to the ironies of the writer’s struggle — and in its references to people and culture of that moment: the Howard University professor Alain Locke; literary journals such as The Reviewer and Poetry (the former long gone but the latter still flourishing); patrons of the arts Elizabeth Sergeant, Mabel Dodge, and A’Lelia Walker (one of the richest black women in America in that period), and the Broadway production LuLu Belle, a Harlem street melodrama in which the white actress Lenore Ulric appeared in blackface.

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I would be simple again,
Simple and clean
Like the earth,
Like the rain,
Nor ever know,
Dark Harlem,
The wild laughter
Of your mirth
Nor the salt tears
Of your pain.
Be kind to me,
Oh, great dark city.
Let me forget.
I will not come
To you again.

Feb. 21, 1926
Lincoln University, Pa.

Dear Carl,

Because I wanted to have time to sit down and write you a decent letter, I haven’t written you at all. When I came back from New York I got in just in time to make a dinner engagement and from then on it was something every day and every night until I left. Negro History Week, with the demand for several readings, the public dinner at the “Y” in honor of Locke’s book and mine, the before leaving parties given by people who wouldn’t have looked at me before the red, yellow, and black cover of the Weary Blues hit them in the eye, teas and telephones, and letters! Golly, I’m glad to get away from Washington. […]

I hear The Reviewer is no longer being published, but if it is, I’m glad you’ve given them five of my Blues. I hope that leaves some for a try at Poetry. […]

I like the school out here immensely. We’re a community in ourselves. Rolling hills and trees and plenty of room. Life is crude, the dorms like barns but comfortable, food plain and solid, first bell at six-thirty, and nobody dresses up, — except Sunday. Other days old clothes and boots. The fellows are mostly strong young chaps from the South. They’ll never be “intellectuals,” — probably happier for not being, — but they have a good time. There are some exceptions, though. Several boys from Northern prep schools, two or three who have been in Europe, one who danced at the Club Alabam’. And then there are the ones who are going to be preachers. They’re having revival now. But nothing exciting, no shouting. No spirituals. You might find it amusing down here, tho, if you come. I room with the campus bootlegger. The first night I was here there was an all night party for a departing senior. So ribald did it become that the faculty heard about it and sent five Juniors “out in the world.” And are trying to find out who else was there. There is perhaps more freedom than at any other Negro school. The students do just about as they choose.

I think I’ll be in New York Friday. Of course, I want to come see you some time during the week-end, if you’ll let me. Miss Sergeant said something about my meeting Mable Dodge, too, and also this trip I am supposed to meet A’Lelia Walker. Last time she sent two books for me to autograph for her, but I didn’t get to see her. […]

I’m anxious to see “Lulu Belle.” Some of my poems were in the Herald Tribune last Sunday, I heard, but I didn’t see it out here. However a check came so they must a been there.