Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Attridge and Staten 4: Langston Hughes Crafts a Ring

I received The Craft of Poetry: Dialogues on Minimal Interpretation little less than a week ago and have been reading around in it, off and on, since then. I will not comment on every one of their discussions – my plan when I first began blogging about the book – but will have a word or two to say about some of the poems they cover and some more general words about their project. In no particular order.

Situated Subjects

Their fifth dialogue is about Langston Hughes and has “situated subjects” as its theme. Hughes, of course, was an African-American writing in the first half of the 20th Century. How does that (cultural) situation underlie his poetry? How does one’s knowledge (of lack thereof) of his blackness influence one’s reading of his poetry? What about one’s own knowledge of his historical situation: Harlem, 20th Century? These are the issues that float round and about their discussion of two of his poems, “Lenox Avenue: Midnight” and “Song for a Dark Girl”.

The second poem, with its invocation of minstrelsy and with lynching as its subject, bears obvious marks of Hughes’s socio-cultural situation, but the first does not. Beyond the street, Lenox Avenue, there’s little in the poem to mark it as African-American and even that works only if you know that Lenox Avenue was and is the central street in Harlem, knowledge that is common enough but by no means universal – but then, just what knowledge really is universal? On the whole, I’m sympathetic to Staten’s remark (p. 84):
[…] I want to insist on the fact that the poet has intentionally not provided the details that would particularize the scene in the way that contextualizing readers insist on doing, and that in that case, providing the missing contextualization turns it into a different poem from the one the poet composed. […] “The Song for a Dark Girl” is an excellent example of the other kind of poem, which makes the particulars of a definite African-American experience the substance of its lyricism. I completely agree with you that “its power as a poem and its power as an ethico-political intervention are inseparable.”
With that I want to leave situatedness behind and examine one of the two poems.

Harlem Symmetry

Here’s the text of “Lenox Avenue: Midnight.”
The rhythm of life
Is a jazz rhythm,
The gods are laughing at us.

The broken heart of love,
The weary, weary heart of pain,-
To the rumble of street cars,
To the swish of rain.

Lenox Avenue,
And the gods are laughing at us.
Take a good look at how it lays on the page. Count the number of lines. We’ll return to that in a bit.

Staten begins the discussion with some observations about the opening stanza. The first is about the rhythm of the opening two lines, with the repetition of “rhythm” and the “way I have to hold ‘jazz’ longer than an ordinary syllable to make it come out right” (75). He then notes how “one falls off the edge on the second line” into the single-word third line, “Honey.” What starts as a programmatic assertion about the nature of things now becomes intimate address. (For what it’s worth, in my mind’s ear I hear the lines being spoken by Geoffrey Holder.) And then we have that fourth line, the poem’s second sentence, which “reveals a gnomic dimension” (76). I’m not sure about “gnomic” though perhaps so, but Staten is certainly right to observe that the “space between the poem’s first sentence and its second is huge, and it is deep” (76). I would suggest that the rest of the poem bridges that gap.

Rather than continue with the blow-by-blow I want to skip Attridge’s remarks and pick things up with Staten again, where “Regarding the second stanza, I would add that it manifests Hughes’s extraordinary feeling for balance and symmetry in his lines” (80). Yes. Staten’s analysis concern each of the three pairs of lines in this second stanza, the symmetry within each pair. But I can’t help but wonder if his sense of symmetry isn’t also being fed by the fact that the entire poem is symmetrical about that middle pair of lines (ll. 7 & 8):
And that’s why I asked you to look at how the poem lays on the page. The poem is 14 lines long with lines seven and eight constituting the “hinge” that defines the poem’s center. That function, as much as anything else, is why Hughes chose a pair of words constructed on the same core – “tones” – but almost opposite in meaning. That signals a change in direction. But “direction” in what “space”?

That’s a good question, for which I don’t have a good answer. But I can make some observations. 

The first is that the second stanza encompasses two distinctly different realms of being, two different regions in semantic space. The first two lines are in the realm of human affect – love and pain – while last two are in the external world, but two regions of that world, the city (rumble of street cars) and the ‘natural’ (rain). I will further posit that love and pain are semantically closer to the first stanza’s “rhythm of life” than they are to the last stanza’s assertion of Lenoz Avenue at midnight while, conversely, that street car rumble is just what you’d expect on Lenox Avenue, bringing the last two lines of the middle stanza semantically closer to the last stanza.

What about the last stanza? Its last line almost repeats the last line of the opening stanza. Almost. That initial “and” changes things a bit, doesn’t it? They may be the same gods of the opening stanza, and their laughter the same, but they are now with us, in the scene. Nor do they have a sentence that is completely their own; they’re attached to “midnight” in the previous line. “Lenox Avenue”, the first line, anchors the scene in physical space while “honey” anchors it in interpersonal/human space. That’s a single enigmatic sentence/proposition. “Midnight” anchors the scene in time while that last line, well, it gives us an audience. But now that audience is around the periphery of the scene, rather than above it as in the opening stanza.

That’s the best I can do at the moment.

The big point of course is the fact of overall symmetry. That brings “Lenox Avenue: Midnight” within the orbit of the various texts – narratives, films, poems – I have been discussing under the rubric of ring-composition (ring form and center point construction). All of these texts have a point or unit that is structurally central and that serves as the major turning point in the text. Some ring-composition texts are narrative, but this one, obviously, is not.

The impulse to central symmetry is deeper than the difference between narrative and lyric expression.

What are its roots?


  1. "way I have to hold ‘jazz’ longer than an ordinary syllable to make it come out right”

    The issue with speaking that line is the Is at the start. Very easy to over hit the the s and get massive over sibilance Issssssssss you avoid that by changing the s to z.

    Izzz a Jazz rhythm. Zz of jazz does not have the same potential for overhit so you can skip it much faster.

    It makes me want to understand the line as Izzz is a Jazz rhythm.

    I find it amusing to do so.

  2. Izz is the being of the poem: the word you make whole (like the rose). It's the sweet spot like honey.