What happens to a dream deferred?
Do you have any deferred dreams?
First, what does deferred mean? Let’s say a student is accepted to university and then defers their admission to the following year. They “put off” school until a later time, maybe next year. So a dream deferred is a dream put off to some future time.
Do you have any deferred dreams? Do they feel possible or impossible? What do you feel when you think about these dreams — hopeful? defeated? frustrated? irritated? sad?
Maybe you don’t even think about certain dreams buried so deep and small in you that you can’t even recognize them …
We begin here in this poem. Hughes asks: “What happens … ?” He doesn’t tell us what happens. That question leaves a big, wide space for all the possibilities to arise.
Let’s take another word we have at the beginning of the poem: the title, “Harlem.” Have you heard of Harlem?
It’s a neighborhood in New York City, historically African American.
Langston Hughes was a writer in Harlem during the 1920s, part of a movement of African American artists and writers later called The Harlem Renaissance.
How do you think this question: “What happens to a dream deferred?” may apply to African American people in Harlem during this time?
Keep this question in mind as you read the poem. (You’ll find an audio of Hughes reading below. I would suggest reading it first a couple of times on your own and then listening to the poet read.)
Teacher Note: The above two questions are potential pre-reading “hooks” to pose for whole-class discussion or think-pair-share. (I am loosely following TPCASTT, so beginning with the title and even first lines is a good start.) You may also choose to pre-teach a few vocabulary words, but see the vocabulary exercise below for and idea for teaching vocabulary in context.
Read the Poem!
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?
Audio of Langston Hughes reading the poem:
Go back and read it one more time and/or listen to the above video. Let the feeling of the poem sink in, wash over you. What feelings come up in you as you’re reading? Make a note of your first responses — emotional responses. Resist analyzing what it means at this point!
Here is a short video lesson of the introduction, reading the poem, and a glimpse at the verb – action activity below!
Close Reading: Word Choice
First, let’s pick out all the verbs from the poem. Go back and underline all the verbs you see. Did you find the ones listed below?
- dry up:
- crust and sugar over:
Do you know the meanings of each word? Do any of the words have multiple meanings? (Like “run”?) Write down your guesses before reading the poem too closely. Which ones do you have questions about?
Did you get that “run” can mean to jog or a liquid moving — like water running? Let’s see what the specific meaning is in this poem…
Teacher Note: Objective: Understanding vocabulary in context. Groups or pairs could work together to guess the meaning of each verb as they read each line, first without a dictionary. 1) Have them look only at the words, listed on the board or on slips of paper. They guess the meaning of each 2) Now, use read the line in the poem where each verb appears. Underline context clues that help them further understand the meaning of the verb. Groups can work together to do all of them, or can be assigned one to work on and present.
Teacher Note: Objective: Analyzing author’s word choice (diction). As (or after) they discuss dictionary meanings (denotation), they could list other possible words (synonyms) or phrases the author could have used. For example, stink could become “smell bad” or “reek.” Groups or pairs can list all the possibilities they can think of and then vote on the best. Why would the author use this particular word, like stink? Make an argument to keep the author’s word or change it. Word choice is important in poetry for its rhythm and sound. Why is the particular word the poet chose — like stink — the best for rhythm and sound and exact meaning? (See below for examples.)
Second, let’s look at the verbs in their line, in context, in the poem. Underline words in each line that help you understand the verb.
We’re going to look at the dictionary meanings (denotation) as well as the feelings the words imply (connotation) to understand more about what the poem is saying. Ready?
- Dry up like a raisin in the sun. Picture a raisin in the sun. It’s shriveled up, has lost its juice. This seems important: it used to be full of life, but now it’s dried up. It takes time to dry in the sun, so it’s been sitting there for awhile, drying up, losing its life and energy.
- Fester like a sore and then run. Fester is an unusual word. Let’s guess by using the clue: sore. What would a sore do? Picture it if you can’t describe it. It might get infected. It’s red and irritated. There might be pus. Then run. In this context, what does run mean? Is this run like jog? No. What are other meanings of run? Water runs. So here, it could be the running of, the leaking of, pus out of the sore after it’s festered. Why does a sore fester? Does every sore fester? No, some sores are cleaned quickly, and they heal quickly. But what if that sore isn’t treated? It gets worse and worse (oh, I see a pattern! Time is also important in “dry up” above!) Last question: Why use the word fester? What else could he have used here? Get infected? Well, fester definitely sounds gross! The sound and rhythm is important versus some sanitary – sounding word!
- Stink like rotten meat. Stink = smell. How does rotten meat smell? Really bad! (You could say it “festers” for awhile to stink that badly.) Here’s another important word choice for sound. Smell sounds kind of nice and soft with the “ll” sound, whereas stink makes us “land” really hard on that word when we’re reading. The “st” and “nk” sounds make it a “hard” stop and give it a “yuck,” and almost angry sound.
- Crust and sugar over like a syrupy sweet. This one is tricky. Is crust usually a verb? Nope, it’s usually a noun. A pizza crust, or the crust of the earth (the land), a cover or layering – like a scab on a sore (!). Here, though, Hughes makes an action of crust: crust over – so something forms a crust over the surface. He also makes an action out of “sugar over,” so if we think of crust, maybe it forms a sugary layer over. We have the context clue of a “syrupy sweet.” A candy left out (like the raisin, like the sore, like the meat!) would get a kind of chalky crust, the sugar clumping together.
- Sags like a heavy load. Use “heavy load” to help you with “sag.” Something heavy can sag, or droop down. If you’re carrying a heavy load, you might physically fall closer to the ground as your legs collapse a bit, and you might feel tired. Imagine carrying that heavy load, and you’ll feel what it feels like to “sag.” The sound is great here because the verbs in the line before have been phrases or multiple words or syllables. But here we just have the one syllable “sags,” so it makes us sloooowww down. It feels slower compared to the other lines, and the “a” sound stretches out. It feels like it’s slow and sagging. The rhythm sags! Question: Why is this pair separated out from the rest? Something to notice and think about for now…
- Or does it explode?. To blow up. How would you use “explode” — like a bomb? Explode in anger? Both feel important for this poem. A couple of things to think about: Why is this line separated out? Why is it in one line and a question instead of in two lines like the others?
Whew! We made it through some heavy analysis! The thoughts I listed above are definitely not the only meanings you may find. Did you see more possibilities of meaning? Comment if you’d like to share!
Next, we’ll read the poem again and think about its form — we already asked a bit about form with the lines that are separated out. Form is unique to poetry, so it’s important to talk about. Poetry has lines, rhythm, beats, spaces — different from prose.
Poem Analysis: Form, Sound, Rhythm, Shifts
Teacher Note: Objective: Reading poetry aloud, understanding how sound, rhythm, form contribute to the poem’s meaning. The activity below is great for building a bridge between what the poem literally says and the deeper feelings and meanings (connotation). 1) After (or as a part of) their analysis of each verb, each pair or group or the whole class can come up with a gesture or action that illustrates each verb. 2) Then, the whole class stands in a circle, and one person (teacher) reads the poem. When each verb comes up, the class says the word and does the action. 3) After one reading, reflect. How does the action help them physically feel what the poem is saying? Are there any that could be modified to better reflect the feeling of the poem? Remember that with something like “run” — it doesn’t mean “jog” in this context, so the action should be like running water, not like jog. 4) Read again and do the actions. You can do many variations of this “read-around” to study the sound and rhythm more closely. Different groups or individual students can be assigned to read one or two lines with their verb, and they all have to connect their lines to make one class-wide fluid reading of the poem, or they can experiment with reading softer or louder, or clapping where the important words or “beats” are. Keep reading below for more ideas / discussion points to incorporate.
Choose an action you can make for each verb on our list, right there in your room as you’re reading this. For example, for “dry up,” you could clutch your fingers together. For “sag,” you can let your body fall. For “stink,” you could hold your nose. Imagine the actions or do them physically as you read the poem again (or listen to the audio). Do you feel more what each pair of lines illustrates? How do the actions help you feel what the speaker of the poem is expressing?
Read it again and feel the rhythm of the poem. Mark with an accent the words in each line that seem to have the “beat,” like a downbeat in music. For example, (stressed words in italics) “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” You can read and clap or tap the beat on your desk. Does your reading differ from how Hughes reads it in the audio? (Probably so! There are lots of different possibilities!)
What I find when I do this is that in each pair, the action verb and then the object get the beats. Also, all the words at the end of the line end with a hard beat, sometimes with multiple hard beats (rotten meat; syrupy sweet). So there’s a building insistence, almost anger in these short lines that all end with hard beats. It’s not a long, flowing, beautiful, soft line, in other words!
What do you think about the dashes (–) and question marks? Why questions? Keep reading for some thoughts about the questions. Dashes in poetry are often long pauses. What’s the effect of having dashes to signal long pauses on those particular lines in the poem?
Shifts. It’s also important that the last pair (with sags) and the last line (with explode) are set apart. There are visual, physical spaces in the poem ending on that one-line, haunting question. We’re just hanging there with that question at the end. Spaces like that — between stanzas— can slow us down. Remember the rhythm with “sag” slows down, as we mentioned earlier. So there is definitely a slowing down, a depression — that goes with the meaning of those lines (sag like a heavy load)! And then we shift quickly to that last line — the anger, urgency of “explode” — quite a different feeling from the depression of “sag”… Any other thoughts as to why we have shifts there or what they signal?
Bringing it All Together: Poem Themes
Remember our original question: What happens to a dream deferred?
Side note: What is the literary term for all the comparisons using “like”? It’s a simile. We have lots of similes in the poem! In each line-pair, we’re asked – What happens to the dream? Does it ___ like a ____? So let’s look more closely at those comparisons and what we’re to take from them…
Going through each two-line question in the poem now (and isn’t it interesting that he keeps asking questions? He answers his first question with more questions, never tells us). What is the feeling of each pair? What does each of his question-answers propose? In other words, how can we take what we analyzed earlier and connect it to what might happen to a dream?
For example, how did you feel with the action of “dry up like a raisin in the sun”? How could we translate that to what would happen to the dream? It would shrivel up and die, lose its juice, lose its freshness.
What about fester and run? It would feel gross, infected, festering, something that makes you sick. And so on. Keep going through the lines.
As we discussed earlier, a lot of them have to do with time — time left sitting there, spoiling, festering, deteriorating. This is what happens when people don’t get to act on their juicy dreams at an appropriate time.
An interesting one is crust and sugar over. This also implies being left out–a candy not eaten and enjoyed. Also, it gives a slightly different feeling than just rotten meat stinking. A person might be smiling on the outside, crusted over with a sugary coating to the world, but inside? They’re really trapped and frustrated in that sugary coating.
How do the similes help us understand the larger significance? Humans often use similes and metaphors to help explain something we don’t really get or haven’t experienced or have a hard time talking about. We can say “I don’t know, but it’s kinda like this.” In the poem, we can feel, like we did when we acted out the verbs, what it feels like when someone can’t achieve their dreams. The similes help people understand the experience of those in this situation — and for the people in the situation, the similes help them articulate what they’re probably feeling but may not even be able to explain.
Back to my question before: What is the effect of using questions? Does the speaker of the poem mean to really ask these? They’re actually a bit sarcastic or pointed. Are they meant to communicate to other African Americans in Harlem? To a more general public? How might each group read the poem differently? Especially with the last line, the poem could almost be taken as a warning, an education, a glimpse for the public into how people in Harlem feel. Or a signal to people in Harlem that others understand your situation and also that change can come…
That last line, set apart, and in italics(!): Or does it explode? Before that, we have two-line groups of questions, so there’s an even sort of rhythm and rhyme. The regular rhyme, every other line, brings completion. It’s all contained, a little box. But then that last line — it kind of falls out, breaking out of that little box. It’s missing a pair. It feels incomplete. And what is the effect? Is it anger, a threat of violence, or a promise of social reform — that could power something like the Civil Rights movement?
So what do we make of this poem? Here’s one possibility. Let’s go back to the title: “Harlem.” The speaker articulates the defeat, frustration, anger of African American people, the people of Harlem, in this time and place. He points to social reform — or suggests that something must change — will change. We’re left waiting with that question — and feel the energy, the building anger and festering, of an explosion, a big change.
Please leave a comment or send me feedback if you’d like to share your insights into the poem, to respond to something in the lesson, or to tell about your experience reading.
.Langston Hughes has many other poems I highly recommend (the collection here is a good one!) Stay tuned for more lessons on this site!
Coming soon: A creative writing lesson inspired by this poem!