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Atomic Words

March 2023
1min read

The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes

edited by Arnold Rampersad; David Roessel, associate editor, Knopf, 576 pages.

“What is poetry?” Langston Hughes asked as an old man. “It is the human soul entire, squeezed like a lemon or a lime, drop by drop, into atomic words.” Not all of the 860 poems collected here fit that model of compression; many are dashed-off sketches or riffs, but they can make an evocative record of what was in the air at the time. Hughes’s work begins in the Jazz Age, takes up the radical styles of the thirties, joins in the revival of patriotism of World War II, and ends in the triumph of the civil rights movement. It can be strong or silly, bluesy or strident, rhapsodie or childlike. The book starts with “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the poem with which Hughes announced himself in 1921, when he was nineteen.

That year he went to New York, whose after-hours world inspired an aesthetic he would use through much of his life: “ EVERYBODY / Halfpint,— / Gin? / No, make it / LOVES MY BABY / corn. You like / liquor, / don’t you, honey? / BUT MY BABY / Sure, Kiss me, / DON’T LOVE NOBODY / daddy. / BUT ME . . .”

Everything Hughes did came out of passionate engagement. A first-rate collection of his work has long been overdue.

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