Within a single lifetime, the United States has gone from a nation that openly and legislatively discriminated against a group of people based upon their race through the upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement to a society that elects a man of mixed races to the highest office available. One of the major sounds of this movement was the voices of black people, brilliantly expressed through the sounds of jazz in an increasingly modern and receptive public. These sounds weren’t exclusive to the music industry, but could be heard in the language used in the literature and poetry of the period as it was expressed by authors such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes. “Musical rhythms can put us in the mood for love or arouse us to other physical actions such as marching or dancing. Similarly, the appeal of some linguistic and poetic rhythms is irresistible. They travel our nervous system and intoxicate the brain or stimulate the heart, inducing gloom, excitation, contemplation, or euphoria” (Maulucci, 2009). Comparing the poetry of these two authors reveals similar approaches to sound including specific brevity of statement, improved flow of thought through enjambment and a focus on a specific element of the black experience.
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At the time Brooks wrote her poem “We Real Cool,” jazz was in full swing in the urban north and black people were finding their own voices in an increasingly receptive modern public. The brevity of language associated with the modern literary movement as well as the jazzy rhythms of the Chicago city scene can be found within her lines. The way in which Brooks separates the stanzas of her poem allows for a progression of thought through the very simple statements presented. The lines “We real cool. We left school” (1-2) talk about the way in which the boys would leave the time-wasting efforts of school in the city in order to hang out and display their ‘cool’ on the street corners. This same three word sentence structure, termed tetrameter (Maulucci, 2009), continues through the remaining two stanzas of establishing an energetic, hard-hitting beat. This same short sentence structure and heavy beat can be found in the lines of Hughes’ poem “I, Too.” Despite his isolation from ‘polite’ society as a result of the color of his skin, he says “I laugh, / And eat well, / And grow strong” (5-7). These short statements help Hughes illustrate his outrage that he is still dismissed when company comes, but the energy of these lines suggest he is also exultant that it won’t be long until many of his brothers will be educated just like him and able to lift up their unique voices to add to the cultural mix that is America.
Brooks employs a poetic tool known as enjambment in order to incorporate the rhythms of the street into her poem. Each line with the sole exception of the final line ends with the first word of the next sentence – always the word ‘we.’ This serves to keep the energy pulling from one line to the next, leaving a pause in the center of each line in imitation of the syncopated rhythms of jazz. At the same time, there continues to be an emphasis on the single word ‘we’, indicating that there are multiples of people involved in this activity, which is compounded by the greater ‘we’ of the public reading the poem who condones this type of behavior either through neglect, intention or ignorance. Hughes also uses enjambment to pull his reader from one line to the next: “Tomorrow, / I’ll be at the table / When company comes / Nobody’ll dare / Say to me, / ‘Eat in the kitchen’, / Then” (8-14). According to Maulucci (2009), the way in which the poet divides his or her lines is often based upon the rhythm of the poem, but can is also a matter of intuition, such as in determining just where to break the line for greatest effect. The unity formed of the poem from one line to the next enables Hughes to boldly claim in his final line, “I, too, sing America” (18).
Both poems also focus on the unique experience that is the ‘black’ experience of America, in which they have the opportunity to make something of themselves in theory, but not in actual fact. Maulucci points out that “It is the spirit of the poem and the meaning of the line that matters more” (2009). In her poem, Brooks is talking about the teenagers that she saw running wild through the mid-1900s Chicago streets. They would get together in gangs and do nothing with their lives but hang out on street corners causing trouble and getting involved in crime. This, of course, leads to them participating in small crimes, beginning with lurking late and then learning to ‘strike straight.’ the poem to indicate how the boys then begin to associate sin with their inner selves, drinking and partying until they die an early death as a result of their actions. In his poem, Hughes discusses the treatment of the black man as it has been experienced in American until this point: “They send me to eat in the kitchen / When company comes” (3-4) but also indicates the emerging strength of the black nation as they began to experience greater human rights and more opportunity for education. As he gains in knowledge, wisdom and opportunity, Hughes recognizes that black people will not always be so easy to dismiss.
Through the manipulation of rhythm through language structure and enjambment and choice of subject matter, both of these poets are able to depict the unique perspective of the black person in the mid-1900s as jazz and the ‘black’ voice was beginning to gain recognition and power of its own. This is demonstrated through the poems as both poets are able to skillfully manipulate the cadence of their poems to convey a sense of sorrow and joy simultaneously. While Brooks conveys sorrow more through her subject and joy through her rhythm, Hughes conveys sorrow more through his rhythm and hope through his subject. Despite these differences, both authors can be seen to draw from the rhythms and patterns of jazz to make their cases.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. “We Real Cool.” The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry. 3rd Ed. Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann & Robert O’Clair (eds.). New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003: 145.
Hughes, Langston. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Vintage Classics, 1995.
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Maulucci, A.S. “Writing Rhythmic Poetry.” Interaction Media Group. (2009). Web.