Why you should read a collection of poems on the beach this summer.
When I teach first-year writing, one of my four main units features close readings of song lyrics—collective practice with the skill with songs that I bring in; and individual papers in which the students analyze the lyrics to a song of their choice. There are lots of reasons why I think this unit is worth including on my syllabus—including its introduction to that skill of close reading and analysis, one that has applications well beyond the literary critical—but one of them is, I’ll admit, particularly sneaky: I think it’s a great way to show students that “poetry” doesn’t have to mean “incredibly dense and difficult literary works written in what seems to be a foreign language”; that the concept can instead describe works and artists that they already love. (I’ll also freely admit to stealing this idea from multiple teachers, including my two favorite English teachers growing up.)
I start this post there because of my assumption—and if it’s wrong, forgive me, dear readers—that for many American Studiers, “poetry” and “beach reads” don’t exactly seem synonymous. There’s no question that much poetry, including the works of many of those poets I’ve highlighted in this space, requires the kinds of extended, in-depth, and challenging attention and reading that don’t seem possible when shared with umbrella drinks and sand castles. But there’s also no question that some of the greatest American poets and poems are as engaging and fun as they are deep and relevatory, enthrall and entertain while they also help us elucidate some of the most complex truths of identity and community, history and nation, and more. And at the very top of that list for me would be the poems anthologized in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (1994).
The 868 poems collected in that book span nearly five decades, and so it’d be ludicrous of me to argue that there’s any single feature that links all of them—indeed, the book reveals most fully Hughes’s tremendous range and versatility, the breadth as well as the depth of his talents. Certainly it’s not the case that all or even most of Hughes’s poems are fun—there are plenty of fun and funny ones, such as all those in the “Madam” series and many in the book-length poem “Montage of a Dream Deferred,” but just as many are far more dark and dramatic, tragic and sarcastic, solemn and serious. Yet what I would say of all Hughes’s poems, in all those categories and many others besides, is that they’re compellingly readable; that they drawn readers in, making us part of their tones and themes, identities and communities, perspectives and worlds. Whether you dip into the collection at random, read it from cover to cover, or browse in any other way, you’re always likely to find poems that speak to you, engagingly and powerfully. Would make for a pretty good beach read!
Next beach read tomorrow,
PS. Nominations for American Studies beach reads, for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post? Bring ‘em!7/10 Memory Day nominee: Mary McLeod Bethune, the pioneering civil rights leader, activist, and educator who started the National Council of Negro Women, founded Bethune-Cookman College, and served for nearly a decade in Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, among many other achievements.
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