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.

Prose Poem Lesson: “Hairs” by Sandra Cisneros

The House on Mango Street is full of short passages perfect for beginning and intermediate English learners.

The vocabulary is not overly challenging, and yet you’ll find new words to study. And best of all, even with very simple language, these short pieces of fiction resonate. There’s so much meaning and feeling packed into every word and every page.

See the free lesson on “Hairs” on ELLiterature here. (Includes a creative writing prompt inspired by the story!)

The narrator of House is Esperanza, a girl growing up on Mango Street in a neighborhood that doesn’t match her dreams. Here’s what Cisneros said about creating Esperanza:

MONTAGNE: Sandra Cisneros, give us a little sense of what the world was like when you created Esperanza.

Ms. CISNEROS: Well, I was fresh out of graduate school. I had started Esperanza in Iowa at the University of Iowa, feeling very displaced and uncomfortable as a person of color, as a woman, as a person from working-class background. And in reaction to being there I started to have some Mango Street almost as a way of claiming this is who I am. It became my flag. And I realize now that I was creating something new. I was cross-pollinating fiction and poetry and writing something that was the child of both. I was crossing borders and I didn’t know it.

She goes on to say:

Cisneros: When I wrote “House,” when I started it, I didn’t think I was giving voice to Latino women. I thought I was just finally speaking up. I had been silenced, made to feel that what I had to say wasn’t important.

I wanted to write something in a voice that was unique to who I was. And I wanted something that was accessible to the person who works at Dunkin Donuts or who drives a bus, someone who comes home with their feet hurting like my father, someone who’s busy and has too many children, like my mother. I wanted this to be lyrical enough so that it would pass muster with my finicky classmates, but also open to accept all of the people I loved in the neighborhood I came from.

Source: ‘House on Mango Street’ Celebrates 25 Years. NPR. April 9, 2009. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=102900929


Cisneros articulates here why I think this book is so accessible for English learners, both in readability and meaning. The cross between poetry and prose she has created (which she didn’t even realize she was creating at the time of writing) makes the stories accessible in length and at the same time, as is characteristic of poetry, so much meaning resonates in every word. With a few vocabulary clarifications, readers can connect with complicated emotions and questions of life.

She’s also created pieces that busy working people would read right alongside the literary crowd. These “borders” she walks in both form and writing style make House moving and real. In unassuming language, Cisneros gives us a voice in Esperanza and an experience of her family and neighbors that feels real for all those on their own version of Mango Street, which doesn’t quite match up to the ideal, for all those who dream.

I’ll leave you with a snapshot from another interview. Here’s what Cisneros said when asked how she felt about her book being taught so widely in American schools today. It’s something I think about as a teacher: Sometimes when we bring a book into a classroom, it can lose its magic, its connection. When we’re asked to analyze it, to answer questions, to break it down, the experience of reading is often different than if we connect to it on our own. Yet, gaining the skills to read more closely in a language classroom can also help us appreciate what we read more. Her answer reminds me why I teach literature and to strive to let the book do its work, “play its music,” in addition to what I feel is important to teach students:

Q: What is it like knowing that this book is taught so widely in American schools today?

A: I don’t take it personally. It has nothing to do with me, or with my book. The book is being taught because it is telling a story that has spiritual resonance at this time in history. It is serving a need, it is doing its healing, it is transmitting light, but I was just the conduit for that light, not the source. I am grateful that the timing was right for my labor to be recognized, and that the readers were ready to hear this story at this time. I am fortunate and blessed to be the flute, but I recognize and acknowledge I am not the music.

Source: Interview with the Chicago Public Library: https://www.chipublib.org/interview-with-sandra-cisneros/


See the free lesson on “Hairs” from ELLiterature here! + a creative writing prompt inspired by the story.


ELLiterature was created as an answer to a problem I found in teaching ELL students. “Classic” literature (though it has its place) had too much antiquated vocabulary and was difficult for students to connect to. “Abridged” texts were … boring. I’m creating a collection of accessible poems and short stories for those learning English and for their teachers. Find texts, lessons, and teacher resources on ELLiterature!