New Voices on the Harlem Renaissance: Essays on Race, Gender, and Literary Discourse

By Australia Tarver; Barnes C. Paula | Go to book overview

“By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light”:
Technology and Vision in Langston
Hughes’s “The Weary Blues”

Steven A. Nardi

IT HAS OFTEN BEEN RECOGNIZED THAT “THE WEARY BLUES” IS A central text in the development of Langston Hughes’s poetics. In practical terms, the poem won Hughes first prize in the 1925 Opportunity magazine poetry contest that is widely seen as raising the curtain on the Harlem Renaissance. It also was instrumental in persuading Carl Van Vechten to convince Knopf to print Hughes’s first collection of poetry (for which Van Vechten suggested the name The Weary Blues). In broader terms, however, it foreshadows the style that has given Hughes’s work life beyond the Harlem Renaissance. Written in 1922, at the beginning of his career, “The Weary Blues” marks the point where Hughes moved from his early Carl-Sandburg influenced efforts to the formation of a poetics that draws upon African American folk culture and music, a path of development that culminates in his 1929 book Fine Clothes to the Jew, which is written almost entirely in the African American vernacular voice.

In his biography of Hughes, Arnold Rampersad views the jazzinfluenced poems of Fine Clothes, the style that “The Weary Blues” prefigures, as Hughes’s “most radical achievement in language” (141). “At the center of his effort,” Rampersad writes in an earlier article, “would be the recognition of a link between poetry and black music, and in particular the music not of the Europeanized spirituals, so often lauded, but of the earthy almost ‘unspeakable’ blues” (Callaloo, 146). With these poems Hughes established the jazz poem as a poetic possibility—an influence felt strongly by subsequent generations of African American poets.

Rereading “The Weary Blues” through a historical lens, however, gives a different understanding of the “link” that Ramper

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