ISLAND

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My “guest poet” this time is Langston Hughes, American,1902-1967.
He was one of the earliest innovators of the then-new literary art form called jazz poetry. Hughes is best known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance in New York City. He famously wrote about the period that “the negro was in vogue”, which was later paraphrased as “when Harlem was in vogue”. It’s a little poem I memorized long ago and sometimes recite to myself.

.

ISLAND

Wave of sorrow,
Do not drown me now:

I see an island
Still ahead somehow.

I see an island
And its sands are fair:

Wave of sorrow,
Take me there.
.
.
ISLAND

61 responses »

  1. “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” Sometimes the idea of being washed up on a nice beach on a distant shore is appealing. I like this poem and had not read it before.

    • I agree, Lisa….about the beach on a distant shore. I wanted to feature a poet this week and recent events steered me toward Langston Hughes. You’ve quoted his “Mother to Son,” so here it is…certainly dated, but still with a clear ring of true:

      Well, son, I’ll tell you:
      Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
      It’s had tacks in it,
      And splinters,
      And boards torn up,
      And places with no carpet on the floor —
      Bare.
      But all the time
      I’se been a-climbin’ on,
      And reachin’ landin’s,
      And turnin’ corners,
      And sometimes goin’ in the dark
      Where there ain’t been no light.
      So boy, don’t you turn back.
      Don’t you set down on the steps
      ‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
      Don’t you fall now —
      For I’se still goin’, honey,
      I’se still climbin’,
      And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

  2. Hi Cynthia, ‘Island’ is a gem of a poem. Whenever I drop on something by Langston Hughes, I’m given pause for thought. I like his optimism. His Harlem reminds me of Moss Side, Manchester, where I worked for a while in the ‘80s. A poem of Hughes’ I like a lot is ‘Harlem Night Song’.

    Take care,

    Paul

    • Hello Paul– I do recall your telling poignantly of those days in Manchester. And I’m happy to know that you–over there in Wales—are a reader of Langston Hughes. I am enjoying the fact that readers have memorable favorites among his poems. And since I presented the poem Lisa recalled— “Mother to Son”— above… here for you is his “Harlem Night Song”:

      Come,
      Let us roam the night together
      Singing.

      I love you.

      Across
      The Harlem roof-tops
      Moon is shining.
      Night sky is blue.
      Stars are great drops
      Of golden dew.

      Down the street
      A band is playing.

      I love you.

      Come,
      Let us roam the night together
      Singing.

  3. I had not heard of this poet before Cynthia, but spurred by both pieces cited here I tootled off and looked him up. I come back a little better educated about a few things, but mainly a little in love with the way the man paints his word and rhythm pictures. He touches me. Thank you for the introduction, I shall read more from Langston Hughes.

    • I am not surprised that you are touched by Hughes’ poetry, and am very glad to have introduced you to him, Pauline. I hope you’re seeing the island of Spring “somehow”… I’m sure it’s out there…

  4. I was immediately reminded of this wonderful poem by John Donne which begins:

    No man is an island
    Entire of itself

    and ends:

    Any man’s death diminishes me
    Because I am involved in mankind
    And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
    It tolls for thee.

    “immediately” because of being fresh in my mind from my June 15 post TELLTALE TITLES to which you posted comments (to which I always look forward). 🙂

    • I seem to recall your poem “Untitled”—which is the best and most wittily titled poem I ever read about untitled poems.

      The title “Island” here is so, so simple, and without an article, definite or indefinite. There are probably a million other poems with that title. Yet the poem is so sparse and perfect I think it couldn’t be anything else. It’s as if you could say “island” and the whole poem might come to mind.

      Thanks for the Donne you did there. 🙂

  5. Hughes reminds us of the courage, faith, strength and determination of his race to keep on through unbearable times. I think he used an island as a symbol (a place where one is protected on all sides) that things will work out right in the end. And, that is something we all need courage to believe during hard times. An fitting poem during the last troubling weeks, Cynthia.

    • What is happening in our streets is very troubling, as you say, Ginene. Hughes has often been a reminder of courage and faith that the island is out there, even as we might fear drowning in this wave of sorrow. Thanks for your lovely comment.

  6. In time
    there’ll be only
    the cosmic dust.

    No black
    anguish or whiteness
    of whims,
    no Hindus,
    no Muslims,
    no sharpshooters,
    no pulpits
    no guillotines,
    no evangelists
    no assassins,
    no cast or creed
    just or unjust.

    In time
    there’ll be only
    the cosmic rust.

    • And in that
      much imagined
      time of cosmic dust

      no honey
      on the tongue
      no whiff of
      white gardenia
      not a bit of
      birdsong or
      a song of man
      no eye to see
      no vision
      to uplift the heart
      no hand to reach
      to craft or to caress—
      no love

      just
      rusty
      dust

      • Some fear that one day
        There’ll be nothing
        Other than cosmic dust

        But I say
        The world will be born again

        With amoeba and tadpoles
        In crystal clear water holes

        Grey toadstools and lacy ferns
        Noisy Sea gulls and cousin terns
        Rust will be on autumn Maples
        And Orange flowers on tall Eucalyptus
        Turkeys will gobble
        And Eagles will soar
        Paths will be made of cobble
        Just as they were before
        Flowers will be splendid
        In colours galore
        Blue will be the ocean
        White when it is frozen
        And humans will be monochrome

        In my heart I believe and trust
        All will be fair, all will be just
        Creations of the cosmic dust

        • Shubha! What a great response! We have poems inspiring poems! Uma is such a word magician and his poem created an apocalypse of destruction for all kinds of destructive things in our world; that inspired me to caution that if we lost all the bad things, we would also lose all the beautiful things too. And now here you are affirming a whole new wonderful world… I can only conclude that cosmic dust is a very inspiring, creative stuff. Thank you very much!

          • Cynthia, thanks so much for your kind words, I am so humbled. I bow to you and Uma for your talent. I was very moved by “The Island” and I had not read Langston Hughes so thanks for giving me the opportunity to read more of his work……you know every week I look forward to your posts, although I did not leave comments on the “….conundrum”…. have had pets over the years and can completely relate…….

            • I totally understand. Your sincere, authentic response is cherished, whenever it comes. I loved that you saw fit to leave a poem after Uma’s and mine. That was a delightful surprise…. like a delicious dessert with a cherry on top!

  7. I don’t know Langston Hughes’ blog. WordPress or Blogger? At any rate, it was nice of him to do a guest post for you. (I am, by the way, always available to do guest posts. Just ask and I’ll whip up a poem or whatever–maybe just a few words to tell the church organist. I’m flexible. And for a small consideration, I’ll even write book reviews.)

    An island. Oh, it must be so nice to live on an island. It’s been a dream of mine since boyhood.

    • When I subtitled my blog “poems, poets, and prosody” I didn’t make clear that my guest poets would perforce all be members of the Dead Poets Society. I’m glad you’ve called this negligence to my attention, Prospero. What would I do without you to keep me on the crooked and wide?
      You see, if I only invite posthumous poets to my party, I don’t have to remunerate them in any way, with praise or nibbles or wine, and there’s no chance of the usual backbiting, brooding, or general noses-out-of-joint on the part of the uninvited.

      And speaking of envy…yes, I think of you and your island…..

      Though you are still too vibrant for the position, I am grateful for your generous offer to serve as a guest poet. (And so is the church organist.) Perhaps later on…..

      • Just so you know, I don’t do guest posts just for anyone. And, in a pinch, I work for cheese puffs and scant though frequent praise.

        Occasionally I begin to reminisce about my boy_wizard_hood and that takes up most of the post, whatever the subject. I’m sure you won’t mind the proclivity.

        Claudio, I once wrote, why don’t you play the toccata and fugue in D minor in B major? This puzzled the timid organist, who began to weep. He had a good idea of what to do with the 3rd, but thought the 6th and 7th might be trickier. Just play, my son–I said (in a religious tone). Then I unhinged the music stand, which landed hard on his fingers. He wept again.

        • This that you wrote once about Claudio seems a fine candidate to add to your wonderful creations published on flash fiction sites. I do think your “fictions” are closer to the genre known as prose poems. That’s why I’ve nominated you for Poet Laureate of the Bermuda Triangle

          • Poet Laureate of the Bermuda Triangle!

            I’ll take it. Naturally I’ll have to make room on my mantle, as the various big-bosomed statuettes and award plaques I have received over the years (centuries) are cluttering things up a bit and are in need of thinning out.

            And as we have said before, there is a schism within poetry as it has two faces: a technical one and one which reflects holding firm certain attitudes about our place in such a sun-lighted laboratory, probably headed by some very clever bacteria in white coats, creating universes willy-nilly.

            Perhaps I’ll write a prose-poem about Janus to give Claudio’s throbbing fingers a chance to heal.

            Nevertheless, it is immensely gratifying to receive such praise from a true poet.

  8. Great poet, (there was a biopic of him on our local educational channel a few years back which I’d like to see again….) And a beautiful poem – for all of humanity. Thanks for sharing this Cynthia.

    • I missed that biopic, Betty, but it’s something I’d like to see, too. I’ve read his work, off and on, since the 70’s, and with time have come to appreciate it more and more. Its seeming simplicity can sometimes belie the fact that it is usually beautifully crafted.

  9. What a lovely sequence of poem, further poems, thoughts and repartee. I enjoyed it all. I think Hughes has reached for that strange half-light you get in sorrow, when you hope either that the pain is temporary or an illusion and that it will recede or that you will swim through it and so it is worth imagining another state that is as fair as ‘before’ now looks in the light of ‘now’. Hmm, not sure if you will make any sense of that, sorry.

    • No sorry needed, Hilary. What you say is quite intelligible to me, and I think I have been there. I like the notion of half-light…not an over-bright optimism or hope, but a dim, abiding kind of faith in life itself. I’m glad you enjoyed both the poem and the comments.

    • As I read your comment my thoughts go back to Thomas Paine’s “These are the times that try men’s souls”…or the Chinese blessing: may you live in interesting times. I imagine it was always so, but the simplicity and truth of the Hughes poem is a good small help. I’m glad I reminded you of him! And thank you so much for your kind words, Ellen.

    • You certainly COULD do that, M-R! Your comment reminds me of a funny incident at a poetry reading once. The poet was William Stafford (a great favorite of mine whose poems might come across as rather ordinary and flat sometimes…until you pay attention and see the genius underneath). A woman in the audience at the reading was annoyed by the simplicity of his language, I think, and after he read a particular poem she blurted out ” Good Lord, I could do that!” Stafford looked up at her in his laid-back way and said: “But you didn’t.” 🙂

  10. Thank you for introducing me to this wonderful man’s poetry. I had chills as I read it. He captured the concept of hope and oneness, I believe, which isn’t easy to do. I also liked the Crystal Stair, and like Pauline, I am off to learn more about him and his work. ❤

    • Yes! Thank you for mentioning them, Michel. I hope my readers will take advantage of the link you provide here.

      I think you are right to see similarities between the Harlem Renaissance and the francophone “négritude” movements. Senghor and Césaire, like Hughes, seemed to keep a fine balance between the anger of an often mistreated minority and the pride in their race.

      I have not read much of their poetry—but I am familiar with Césaire’s “Une Tempête”, a parody of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” As you might guess, I much prefer the Shakespeare play, a work of beautiful language in my mother tongue. But it’s interesting to see how Césaire borrowed those characters and turned them into types in order to express his own ideas about power and race.

      Progress seems slow, and sometimes I wonder if the strife and conflict will ever end. I am grateful, though, for poets who keep the struggle sane and without violence.

  11. I echo Ellen. This is a poem for our times which is of course the essence of all timeless poetry, I suppose.

    How I enjoy coming by your posts – even when they’re members of the dead poets society (poor Prospero but his time will come).

    • Glad to hear that you enjoy, Susanne. Since he’s now over 400 years old, I imagine Prospero will outlast us both. But he shouldn’t fret; as far as I’m concerned, he’s already the Poet Laureate of the Bermuda Triangle.

  12. Such a talented poet. I, too, had never read this one before (thanks for sharing it) but I have one of his books, and I’ve liked several of his poems, including ‘silver rain’.

    • To my delight, this post seems to have become an international poem-sharing fest. And since I featured Langston Hughes favorites of other commenters above, here is the one you mention, Cynthia. Thank you!

      IN TIME OF SILVER RAIN

      In time of silver rain
      The earth puts forth new life again,
      Green grasses grow
      And flowers lift their heads,
      And over all the plain
      The wonder spreads

      Of Life,
      Of Life,
      Of life!

      In time of silver rain
      The butterflies lift silken wings
      To catch a rainbow cry,
      And trees put forth new leaves to sing
      In joy beneath the sky
      As down the roadway
      Passing boys and girls
      Go singing, too,

      In time of silver rain When spring
      And life
      Are new.

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