Activity 1. Defining Voice
- On the board, write a working definition of voice that is appropriate for your students' level of preparation and that reflects what they already know. The simplest definition is that a writer's voice reveals his or her personality. A strong contrast might help to make the point: read a passage from an encyclopedia (or perhaps your tax form) and read a passage from one of the poems by Langston Hughes (Activity 2).
As you and your students work through the activities of this lesson, create a list, just below the working definition of voice that you wrote on the board earlier, consisting of additional items and qualities that contribute to a distinctive poetic voice. Use the Guiding Question to help your students make choices about which qualities might belong in a more comprehensive definition of poetic voice. For now it is enough just to list the possibilities; as a culminating activity, students will develop a revised definition of poetic voice that incorporates the discoveries your class made while reading the poetry of Langston Hughes (Activity 7).
- Here is a little more background on the subject of voice. Unlike, say, iambic pentameter, which has a fairly constrained meaning, voice has been extended metaphorically far beyond its original sense of the vocal qualities of a particular speaker. According to one dictionary of critical terms, to speak of voice in a poem is to
...characterize the tonal qualities, attitudes, or even the entire personality of this speaker as it reveals itself directly or indirectly (through sound, choice of diction, and other stylistic devices)…[voice] reminds us that a human being is behind the words of a poem, that he is revealing his individuality by means of the poem, and that this revelation may be the most significant part of what we receive from the poem.
--Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Ed. Alex Preminger. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965.
While you will not want to begin with the definition above, you may find that, having worked through the activities below, your students will be able to come up with an essentially equivalent formulation, for by this stage they will have learned to identify a wide variety of qualities in Hughes's poetry that have made his voice a forceful, distinctive, and memorable one for so many readers.
Activity 2. Variations on a Dream
What do you see? What do you tend to notice in others and in the world around you? What do you tend to remember? When you think of the past, what images stay with you?
- Pass out copies of these three poems by Langston Hughes to your students
- "Dreams": The text of "Dreams" is available from the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets.
- "Harlem (2)" ("Dream Deferred"): Although not available on an EDSITEment-reviewed source, this short poem is widely anthologized; you can find a copy on the Internet by doing a search for the words of the title plus "Langston Hughes" (or do a search for the first line "What happens to a dream deferred?").
- "Dream Variations": the text of "Dream Variations" is also available at the Academy of American Poets.
Ask students to take notes on any interesting images they notice as the poems are read. Then read all of the poems aloud. Before discussing them, give your students some silent time to read through the poems again on their own, making notes on any interesting images they find in each poem. As a class, discuss the imagery and the emotions expressed in each poem. You might wish to take each of the poems in turn, for each has something new to reveal about how vivid images may be yoked with strong emotions to create memorable poetry.
With the first poem, for example, you could begin by having students identify the poem's two most prominent images: the broken-winged bird and the barren field. Then have students brainstorm all the feelings they associate with these images (for now, just "free associate" and do not censor any possibilities). Discuss how these feelings are linked with the concept and word to which the two images are metaphorically linked: "life." One of the reasons for Hughes's broad appeal is his ability to pack a great deal of meaning in a small space by creating metaphors linking images that suggest a range of widely shared feelings with general concepts such as "life" that might otherwise strike us as vague or abstract. The result is a general idea we can all grasp enlivened by vivid images whose associations we can all share.
You can apply the same approach to your discussion of "Dream Deferred," which links images that elicit feelings of strong physical revulsion (the festering, running sore, for instance) to an otherwise hazy and ephemeral idea (a "dream"). Notice that this poem does not tell you what a "dream deferred" is or what it must become; Hughes merely poses the question, leaves the answer open, although he does so with the unforgettable force that has made his poetic voice so distinctive and memorable.
- For journal entry #1,students will respond to the question: What do you see? (What do you tend to notice in others and in the world around you? What do you tend to remember? When you think of the past, what images stay with you?)
All of us notice different sorts of things in the world around us. Some people are quick to notice the clothes others wear and to remember the details for days; other people do not notice and would not remember such details to save their lives. What we see and hear and touch and smell around us--the sensual "pictures" that remain in our memories--are for poets and writers the raw stuff of memorable images and metaphors.
This journal assignment has two parts. First, students should write about a memorable event that happened more than one year ago. In their journal entries, they should emphasize two things: 1) as many physical details they can remember--clothes people wore, the weather, sounds, etc. and 2) their feelings at the time, their emotional responses to the remembered event.
Next, ask students to take an analytical step back from their writing and try to come up with one or two metaphors that might make this event memorable to readers. The metaphors should match one or more details with one or more of the feelings they experienced at the time.
Ask students to share one of their metaphors with the rest of class and, if it's necessary for understanding the metaphor, ask them to briefly summarize their memorable event. (This discussion of emotion and metaphor will be picked up in subsequent discussions in the activities below.)
- Return briefly to your working definition of voice in poetry. Review the Guiding Question. In your class discussions of imagery, metaphor, and emotion, or in your students' journal exercises, has anyone discovered any qualities that help to make a poet's voice forceful, distinctive, and memorable? Make a list on the board below your original working definition.
- Before moving on to additional poems, you may wish to share with your students Winhold Reiss's portrait of Langston Hughes as a young man; you can find this portrait by doing a search on the EDSITEment-reviewed National Portrait Gallery website. What qualities in the young Hughes has this painter tried to capture? Do these qualities fit with those reflected in the voice that you heard in the three "Dream" poems?
Activity 3. "Theme for English B"
Who are you? (How do others see you? How do you see yourself? How would you like others to see you?)
- Before reading and discussing the poem, ask your students to warm up their minds with journal entry #2. The question is essentially the same one that Hughes describes in his poem, "Theme for English B": say something about yourself; answer the deceptively simple question, who are you?. Reassure students that you know this is an extremely open-ended question. If you like, you can qualify this question a bit: How do others see you? How do you see yourself? How would you like others to see you? But the open-endedness of the question is part of the point here, for the purpose of this exercise is to parallel the situation described at the beginning of Hughes's poem, "Theme for English B."
- Now share with your students a copy of "Theme for English B," available from the Academy of American Poets. Give them time to read the poem to themselves before reading the poem aloud in class--they will easily recognize the parallel with the journal exercise they have just completed. After reading the poem aloud, ask students to identify which section of the poem is part of the "page" that Hughes writes for his instructor, and which section represents the thoughts in his mind just before he begins to write. What are the differences between that first stanza, representing the poet's thoughts to himself as he contemplates the assignment, and the subsequent stanzas, which express how he presents himself to an audience, in this case his instructor? List some of things that Hughes includes in his self-presentation.
The poem is straightforward and speaks for itself, but reveals a more subtle and sly speaker the more you reread it and think about how Hughes has turned the instructor's question on its head. What does he mean when he says, "I hear you: / hear you, hear me--we two--you, me, talk on this page"? Who is "talking" here? How can Hughes say to his instructor that they are a part of each other? Do we as readers have a part in this conversation?
- Your students should readily identify the central theme of this poem: the role that race plays in self-identity and in our relations with others. In Hughes's poem, the relationship of "you" and "me" is charged with race. The speaker in the poem is black, the instructor is white. But think about Hughes's relationship with that unseen audience: readers of his poem. The reader of Hughes's poem may, of course, be of any race, so the relationship between poet and reader--between "me" and "you"--is always shifting with each new reader. Ask your students about their own relationship as readers to Hughes's poem. How does their own race matter in how they read this poem? Do they think it matters at all? Do they think these shifting relationships between reader and poet, between "you" and "me," are intentional? Is this perhaps part of the meaning that Hughes intends?
- What new lesson does this poem have to teach us about the poet's voice? Ask students if Hughes's "Theme for English B" gives them any ideas about how they might add to or modify your working definition of voice in poetry. For example, Hughes says that "I guess I'm what / I feel and see and hear": a poet's voice, then, includes aspects of his or her everyday experience; he also says that he "hears" Harlem and New York, indicating that the places where a poet lives or has lived become of who he or she is, part of what makes his or her voice a distinctive one.
- This may be a good time to share with your students a little background on Hughes and on the Harlem Renaissance. There is a student-oriented biography of the poet available at America's Story, from the Library of Congress. For additional background see the Preparing to Teach this Lesson section. For background on the Harlem Rennaissance, see the Library of Congress, A Guide to Harlem Renaissance Materials, including a list of exhibitions and links to "Today in History" featuring African Americans.
Activity 4. "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"
Where do you come from?
- Along with "Mother to Son" and "A Dream Deferred," Hughes's "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is among his most-frequently anthologized and taught poems. Also his first published poem, it is a small masterpiece of rhythm (another quality you will want to add to your working definition of voice). The best way to appreciate the rhythm of the poem is to hear it read by Hughes himself. If you have access to RealPlayer on the computer, you and your students can listen to the poet reading "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"; both the text and of the poem and the audio clip are available on the EDSITEment resource Academy of American Poets. (There is also a wonderful recording of Hughes reading this and other poems on the cd/book collection, Poetry Speaks. Ed. Elise Paschen and Rebekah Presson Mosby. Narrated by Charles Osgood. Source books Mediafusion, 2001.)
- Begin by talking about the rhythm of this poem. What words and phrases are repeated? What phrases use different words but repeat the same grammatical or syntactical pattern? Ask students to think about why a poet would repeat words and phrases in this way: why not just say something once and be done with it? (Students will find this easier to answer if they have heard Langston Hughes reading his poetry.)
- Discuss the perspective of the speaker in the poem. The previous poem we looked at, "Theme for English B," spoke to us as one person, a very specific person at a very specific time--how is "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" different? Does he seem to be speaking as one person or as many? How can you tell? If he is speaking for many people, why would he choose to say "I" instead of "we"? What themes connect the two poems? (A hint: in "Theme for English B," Hughes says, "Harlem, I hear you"). How can you tell that, different as they are, the two poems are expressions of the same distinctive and memorable poetic voice? Go back to some of the "Dream" poems you read earlier. Where do they fit in this pattern: are they words spoken by a single person or are they spoken by many people? Is it possible speak for both at the same time?
- For journal entry #3, ask students to write in their journals a response to the question "where do you come from?" One approach would be to write from the perspective of a group of their ancestors; if their family came from Ireland, for instance, they could speak from the perspective of people who have left their home and sailed across the Atlantic for America. What do they find in this new world? What have they left behind? They can use Hughes's poem as a model of a voice which, while personal and written from the first-person perspective (he uses "I," not "we"), seems to speak for many people.
- You may wish to extend this portion of the lesson by sharing with your students Langston Hughes's interest in and debt to jazz and blues music. For more resources, see the Extending the Lesson section.
- At the EDSITEment-reviewed Modern American Poetry, you can find a sampling of critical commentary on the poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"; the excerpts here demonstrate the wide range of meanings that readers have found in Hughes's first published poem. The point in sharing these comments by critics is not so much to uncover the "deep meaning" of the poem, but to ask the question: what qualities in this poem, in the voice that we hear in this poem, have encouraged readers to look for and find so much meaning in so few lines? Add these qualities to your list of qualities that make a voice distinctive and memorable.
Activity 5. "Mother to Son"
What obstacles have you overcome in life?
- Share with your students the text of "Mother to Son," available from the the Poetry Foundation. The Academy of American Poets has a short essay, "Poems about Sons," which explore the voices of male speakers in reference to their sons. The speaker in Hughes's poem, however, is female. You might wish to address how a mother's view might (or might not) differ from a father's in preparation for students' writing about their own experience in the journal exercise described below.
- As you begin your discussion of the poem, remind students of your earlier discussion of imagery and metaphor in the three "Dream" poems. The first poem they looked at compared life to a barren field and a bird with a broken wing. This poem tells us what life is not--it is not a "crystal stair." Let's think about this image a moment. Is this likely one of the things that Hughes saw on a daily basis? Do most people have a crystal stair in their house? Now we know what life is not--what then does the poem tell us that it is? Unlike the first poem we read, "Dream," this poem gives us not one or two images, but a whole set of related images for "life." How are they related? What feelings do students associate with these images? What emotions color the mother's speech to her son? What feelings are conveyed in the contrast between the crystal stair and the set of other images that, as the mother tell us, really characterize life? As you discuss the poem, record any additional items on the board for your definition of voice in poetry.
- You may wish to make the distinction between voice and speaker (or "persona"). Compare the speaker in this poem to that in "Theme for English B" and "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." In the first, the speaker seems to be the poet himself, in the second, speaker seems to be a whole people, or perhaps a whole people as they dwell inside a single man. Here the speaker, or persona, is a literary character--obviously not Hughes himself. How does Hughes create a voice for this character, the "Mother" of the title? In terms of words or phrases, how does the poem reflect the speech of this character? Do you think the mother in the title is necessarily Hughes's mother, or someone else's mother, or perhaps even more than one mother?
- For journal entry #4, ask students to respond to the question What obstacles have you overcome in life? What struggles have you faced? As they write about these obstacles, they can also give some thought to what they have learned from their struggles.
- As a class, discuss how the difficulties and struggles we face in life can help to shape who we are and how we look at the world. Does anyone have an example of how their perspective was shaped by their struggles? Now return to the poem. Do the mother's words suggest that her perspective on trouble and struggle may differ from her son's? What lines suggest that her own perspective has been directly altered by struggle?
Activity 6. "Merry-Go-Round"
What do you feel strongly about?
- We are taught that anger is a bad thing, and certainly there are times when anger is inappropriate. But there are a few things about which we should be angry. Langston Hughes was angry about the racism of his time, institutionalized in the notorious Jim Crow laws that are the subject of his poem, "Merry-Go-Round." Share with your students the text of this poem, available together with an audio/video version of the poem read aloud, on the Favorite Poem Project.
- For background material on the Jim Crow laws, see the Library of Congress online exhibit, African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship; given its relevance to the time period in which Hughes was writing, see especially the section, Depression, New Deal, and World War II.
- With the guiding question (above) as your focus, discuss the speaker/persona that Hughes develops in this poem; compare the speaker that Hughes develops in this poem, and compare it to the previous poem, "Mother to Son."
- In journal entry #5, students respond to the question, What do you feel strongly about? After they have completed this exercise, discuss the uses and abuses of strong feelings. If they were angry, how did students respond? What actions did they take? For the question is always: what shall we do with our anger? Where shall we channel our strongest emotions? What does this poem tell us? (If students are having difficulty, you might want to remind them of "Theme for English B." In that poem, the speaker turns a class assignment on its head, redirecting the question back to the instructor: what of me is part of you? There is a similar intellectual maneuver in "Merry-Go-Around": instead of directly protesting the laws that say black people should ride in the back of trains (a serious matter), Hughes chooses to write about a merry-go-round—which has no back. Why does he make this choice? Notice also that this poem, like "Dream Deferred" and "Theme for English B" poses a question, but does give any definitive answers.
Activity 7. Final Writing Assignment
There are several possibilities for a culminating writing assignment related to Langston Hughes:
- Write a short poem that expresses your personal voice. The poem can build upon ideas, images, and themes you explored in your journal, and you can use one or more of Hughes's poems as a model. When you have completed the poem, write out a definition of voice that uses some of the qualities of voice you discussed in class. Be prepared to talk in class about the ways in which your poem expresses qualities of your own voice as a writer.
- Write a persuasive essay that includes, perhaps in its introductory paragraph, a short definition of voice in poetry. Write this definition as a statement responding to the guiding question: What qualities make a writer's voice forceful, distinctive, and memorable? Now use this definition as the main point in a persuasive essay about the poetry of Langston Hughes. Use examples from Langston Hughes's poetry to illustrate and support the qualities that you believe create a voice that is forceful, distinctive, and memorable.