Langston Hughes: Dream Theme and Variations

I’m excited about my first book club session live on Instagram on a poem I’ve mentioned here before: “Harlem” by Langston Hughes. I demonstrated the activity and some of the key ideas from my lesson on the poem here. (And of course I’d love for you to follow the book club if you’d like!)

There’s a reason I chose to think about Langston Hughes this month, or rather why his poems just won’t leave me.

Let me try to explain — through looking a bit closer at his poems!

Hughes published a whole series of poems on dreams, where the “dream deferred” line comes up again and again, like a thread through the poems.

Here is the first stanza of “Dream Boogie“:


Good morning, daddy!
Ain’t you heard
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred?


Hughes brings up that theme — dream deferred — again like a musical theme. His musical intention is reflected in titles like “Dream Boogie” and “Dream Variations.” The idea of dreams weaves through the poems like theme and variations in music: the main line, the variations in melody and harmony, the eventual bringing together of the theme, now layered with all its strands.

And “Dream Boogie” reflects another one of Hughes’s projects: to capture the life and sound of “his people,” as he says in one of his autobiographies I Wonder as I Wander. We can see this in the language, which sounds like the music streaming out of a club in Harlem.

But what happens in the poem? We hear (We’re even told to “Listen closely –“) the rhythm of the music in this poem, and then there’s a shift, or several shifts as the poem breaks up with dashes, lines, italics, pieces of lyric:


Listen closely:
You’ll hear their feet
Beating out and beating out a—

You think
            It’s a happy beat?

Listen to it closely:
Ain’t you heard
something underneath
like a—

What did I say?

Sure,
I’m happy!
Take it away!

Hey, pop!
            Re-bop!
            Mop!

            Y-e-a-h!


“Is it a happy beat? … Sure, I’m happy.” There’s almost this address to the reader, an imagined conversation with the performer, emphasis on “performer. It’s obviously not a happy beat that he goes on performing. The upbeat “boogie,” covers the reality. Or actually, the performer doesn’t even think about how he actually feels, doesn’t have a chance to reflect on the reality because the music interrupts the speech, with dashes, with stanza breaks, even the question, “What did I say?” He just goes on performing, and the lyrics get more sound-based and non-logical. “Re-bop,” “Mop,” as if to say, forget it. I can’t hear you anyway — or you can’t really hear me …

Read “Dream Variations” to compare, to add another layer to our exploration of the dream theme. What comes through for you in this poem?

I see a range of feelings in “Harlem” of the dream deferred — drying up, festering, rotting, pretending to be OK, deep sadness and depression, the threat of explosion of anger and frustration. In “Dream Boogie” there’s a tragedy of not even acknowledging or being able to ask the question about a dream, or the pursuit of happiness, but going along playing this “happy beat.” But in “Dream Variations,” the dream is more overtly expressed: It’s simply “to fling my arms wide.” Just that. Freedom.

Through all these variations, there’s also a pride in “his people.” “Night coming tenderly / Black like me,” pride in the langauge and sound of people he highlights in the poems — the musicians, the everyday working people. There is something powerful about a poet who can articulate an experience, who can give reality to an experience usually not put down in literature. Here, on the page, is the sound of his neighborhood. Espeically in “Dream Variations,” there is beauty.

And this is why I can’t let go of Langston Hughes’s poetry, or why his poetry won’t leave me these days. He speaks — often very simply and bluntly — truth about the Black experience, about a country where people have to defer their dreams of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or never acknowledge them. In a poem I’ll address later in the book club, he says, “America was never America to me.”

The power of poetry lies in saying it on the page, bringing forth truths too long ignored. Through capturing the voice of people, the music, the complexity of feelings, the limitations of dreams and freedom and happiness, Hughes makes it hard to turn away — but if we do, we still hear the melody, the musical phrases, the sound of these voices now echoing through us.

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