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Episode Info: This week on StoryWeb: Langston Hughes’s book of poems Montage of a Dream Deferred. I play it cool And dig all jive That’s the reason I stay alive. My motto As I live and learn Is dig and be dug in return. So goes the poem “Motto” in Langston Hughes’s 1951 jazz collection, Montage of a Dream Deferred. The list of my favorite Langston Hughes poems would be long indeed, but no volume of his poetry makes my heart sing like Montage of a Dream Deferred. Not only does it include justly famous poems like “Harlem” and “Theme for English B” and lesser known poems like “Motto.” But it also – taken as a whole volume as Hughes intended – provides a marvelous portrait of the African American community in post-World War II Harlem. The story goes that Hughes wrote Montage of a Dream Deferred in a creative outburst in one week in September 1948. Hughes had just moved into his own home after being a renter his entire adult life. Writing to a friend, Hughes described Montage as “a full book-length poem in five sections,” “a precedent shattering opus—also could be known as a tour de force.” I completely concur with Hughes’s self-assessment: Montage of a Dream Deferred is very much a tour de force. In his early work, Hughes showed how the blues as a uniquely African American musical form shaped his poetry. Some time back, I explored his landmark 1925 poem “The Weary Blues” and the way it exemplified the blues influence on Hughes’s poetry. By the 1940s, however, jazz had more than come into its own, embodying the vast creativity and artistry of African Americans. Jazz is just right as a vehicle for Hughes’s poetry, for he can riff on a poetic theme much as a band member might riff on a musical motif set down by the leader. Jazz was, of course, a distinct creation of African American musicians. Though there were many white musicians who became interested in and mastered jazz and pushed it in new directions, jazz was largely an African American cultural phenomenon. No volume of Hughes’s poetry illustrates his “jazz in words” approach quite like Montage of a Dream Deferred. And here it’s especially be-bop and boogie woogie that shape the volume and provide its language and syncopated rhythms. In a prefatory note to the book, Hughes writes, [T]his poRead more »

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