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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Poems of a different hue

Last night I listened to a Professor of English and Ethnic Studies, Dr Wilfred Samuels, read (rather, sing) the poetry of a man I had heard of but only vaguely. While I am no stranger to African American literature (Alice Walker and Toni Morrison are among my favorite writers), the poetry I was less familiar with--other than of course Maya Angelou whose "I know why the caged bird sings" has inspired many a high school student to delve further into the poetry that breaks free from centuries of oppression. But I suppose those who know African-American literature would know that you cannot speak of the poetry of Black America without speaking of Langston Hughes. Dr Samuel's, in a deep and resonant voice reminiscent of the negro spiritual, gave the audience a Hughes poem that runs as deep as its title: The Negro Speaks of Rivers Says Hughes, in a refrain that runs through the rendering of the poem like an undercurrent to the river of thought itself, "My soul has grown deep like the rivers", a line that conveys both the anguish of the speaker and the hope that comes from a belief that the world we see is not entirety of knowledge or life. It's also a line that recalls the spirit of resistance--not of a violent kind, but a resistance of the spirit, that marks long struggles against injustices of various kinds, from slavery to apartheid to genocide to displacement. For us in India, perhaps it recalls the struggle in the Narmada and other valleys, marked by as much poetry and music to keep them alive. "Ma Rewa", a folk song adapted by Indian Ocean is one such. The poetry of Langston Hughes does something else. It makes an essential connection between the history of the African-American and the contemporary Black identity. In "Theme for English B" he raises an issue that is felt just as much by the marginalised Indian child in an average classroom--how much of the "we" in a teacher's mind is constituted by his or her experience and history? Is there space for us "to know what is true for you or me" in a way that goes beyond the superficiality of well constructed words? As Dr Samuels emphasized, one cannot understand text without context.. And the gift of poetry is that is opens the door to worlds through a lace-like arrangement of words. Context through text. So through the poetry of Langston Hughes, I enter the world of blues poetry, as musical to the verbal ear as the tripping notes of a jazz band. And a side door takes me to the verse of Lawrence Dunbar and the irrepressible rhythm of "Jump back, honey, jump back" (A Negro Love Song by Paul Lawrence Dunbar), performed by Dr Samuels with a smile and a lilt, urging participation from the staid audience at Hyderabad's Poetry Society meeting.

1 comment:

Tejah said...

Hmmm. Some how, it works the other way for me - very rarely does poetry lend its context to me. I must admit to 'not getting' a lot of poems that have deeply moved people. Prose, on the other hand, works exactly like you describe it (for me).

But when you set poems to music, then you are addressing many other aspects of our minds, and perhaps that helps people like me bridge the distance.