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Ten Poems: Hughes’ “Harlem” 20 April 2006

Posted by ABD in ABD, Arts, Poetry, Politics, Reviews.

I will leave the rich tradition of Muslim poetry to someone who knows it better than I do. From the Anglo-American tradition, however, I offer you these gems.

Let’s begin with a no-brainer. There’s something wrong with you if you don’t like this poem.

Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun
Or fester like a sore—

And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—

Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Langston Hughes is an iconic Black American poet. There is little more that I can say without reducing him to an ethnicity or period (he was my favorite poet for the longest time, although I am neither black nor American). This poem was published in 1951; I am using its original title here (it is often better known as “A Dream Deferred”). Also check out the following Hughes poems: Dreams, Daybreak in Alabama, Theme for English B, I, Too, Sing America and The Negro Speaks of Rivers (this last link includes an audio clip).

Why this poem should resonate with Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11 is obvious (though you may wish to still those resonances). To deny that peace has anything to do with justice is as crude a simplification as to say that jihad means holy war. Might it be that Islam is neither a religion of peace nor violence but rather of justice?

This is not to say (ah, the obligatory retreat…) that we must push for justice at any cost and by any means. After all, mercy has a central place in Islam. But mercy is an attribute of the strong, not the weak. It is the upper hand that gives.

This poem is about the dilemma of the lower hand.



1. ABD - 20 April 2006

ps. feel free to suggest poems to be included in this series. one down, nine to go…

2. miss anonymiss - 26 April 2006

We Who Are Your Closest Friends
Phillip Lopate

We who are
your closest friends
feel the time
has come to tell you
that every Thursday
we have been meeting,
as a group,
to devise ways
to keep you
in perpetual uncertainty
discontent and
by neither loving you
as much as you want
nor cutting you adrift.
Your analyst is
in on it,
plus your boyfriend
and your ex-husband;
and we have pledged
to disappoint you
as long as you need us.
In announcing our
we realize we have
placed in your hands
a possible antidote
against uncertainty
indeed against ourselves.
But since our Thursday nights
have brought us
to a community
of purpose
rare in itself
with you as
the natural center,
we feel hopeful you
will continue to make unreasonable
demands for affection
if not as a consequence
of your disastrous personality
then for the good of the collective.

3. * - 26 April 2006

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginably You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

e.e. cummings

4. anonymous - 29 April 2006

You with the Still Soul

Maybe you have a still soul that
goes murmurless like water in the deep
of rivers;

And perchance you wander
silent amid the din of the world’s
grinding barter like one
journeying in strange lands.

You, too, with the still soul,
have your mission, for beneath the
dashing, noisy waves must ever
run the silent waters that give the tide
its course.

– Max Ehrmann

5. Baraka - 30 April 2006

Langston Hughes is wonderful!

6. Baraka - 3 May 2006

The Colonel

by Carolyn Forche

What you have heard is true. I was in his house. His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of the wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.

7. Baraka - 3 May 2006

I also love:

The Wild Rose

Sometimes hidden from me
in daily custom and in trust,
so that I live by you unaware
as by the beating of my heart.

Suddenly you flare in my sight,
a wild rose blooming at the edge
of thicket, grace and light
where yesterday was only shade,

and once again I am blessed, choosing
again what I chose before.

-by Wendell Berry, for his wife

8. ABD - 13 May 2006

miss anonymiss and baraka, thank you for your suggestions–keep them coming! a beautiful poem you have never read before is a blessing.

9. other|matters » Ten Poems You Must Know (2) - 14 May 2006

[…] Langston Hughes’ simple yet powerful “Harlem” (see previous post in this series) considers the consequences of dreams that have been deferred for too long. This is possibly the starting point for understanding what drives desperate people. Perhaps just as important, however, is for us to realize the terrible price of desperate actions. A poem like this one forces us to take pacifism seriously. […]

10. mshahin - 15 November 2006

Salaam Alaikum,

Nothing wrong with me because this is one of my favorite Langston Hughes poems :-) It is so good to see others with excellent poetry tastes, and I like the suggestions that were offered also.

I definitely will be checking back here often to complete the series.

11. faith walker - 22 November 2006

Dream of dream of everything
dream of dream of everything
close your eyes and see what you can dream
when you
close your eyes and dream
dream of dream of everything
dream of dream of everything

12. Michelle Sun - 19 August 2007

No Peace for me
Ears ringing The community is crying
No peace for me
Heart breaking The family is dividing
No None at all
No Peace for me
Love is distant
Patience thin
God is listening
I am speaking
Calling Calling always calling
Wondering where is our PEACE?

13. Anonymous - 28 February 2008


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