Hughes's 1926 essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain"
is commonly taught as the definitive statement of jazz poetics-a
poetics that asserts the liberation of black poetry from Western
Culture through recovering authentic African American music and
oral traditions. In particular, Hughes's accomplishment in that
essay and throughout the twenties is viewed as the key to development
of a poetics derived from music. It is exactly the subordination,
then, of poetry to music that is understood as enlivening Hughes's
In this spirit, Arnold Rampersad writes about Langston Hughes's
1928 book, Fine Clothes to the Jew,
Hughes clearly showed that he had begun to see his own learned poetic
as inferior to that of "ordinary" blacks
At the heart of his sense of inferiority-which empowered rather
than debilitated Hughes-was the knowledge that he (and other would-be
poets) stood to a great extent outside the culture he worshipped.
As I have said, the assumption that African American poetics, to
succeed in authentically representing the culture, must accept a
subordination to folk forms and mass consciousness provides critical
advantages for critics interpreting black culture. Steven Tracy,
for example, in Langston Hughes and the Blues (1988) makes the case
that Hughes's poetry exists in a shadow only lifted through knowledge
of the blues tradition. His book epitomizes the tendency to tell
the story of Hughes's development of the blues poem as a heroic
discovery and appropriation of a new poetic form. Tracy assumes
that African American poetry is fundamentally rooted in oral culture
and that there is a march of progress across the twentieth century
of black poetry re-finding and reclaiming its oral roots. The mission
of the black poet, as Tracy represents Hughes's thought, is to bridge
the gap between the folk mind and the mind of the educated African
American intellectual. But that encounter is not an encounter between
equals. He writes,
Hughes knew that he didn't need to make the folk his primary
audience, though he certainly attempted to express aspects of the
folk experience. He didn't need to interpret their lives for them
because they already recognized their own beauty, and, because of
their grounding in orality, they were already artists themselves.
The black masses, Tracy argues, are already artists. They have no
need for poetry because they already understand themselves perfectly
through an oral tradition that Tracy equates with the blues. Art,
in other words, is wasted on the black masses because it is superfluous.
African American poetry, in Tracy's account of Hughes's thinking,
is always the junior cousin of the oral tradition, trying to refine
itself out of existence in order to provide the closest possible
experience of the real, authentic, blues voice that antedates and
So while Rampersad is certainly right to say that Hughes saw jazz
as empowering, it is equally clear that this prescription is intrinsically
debilitating to poetry. In portraying the most accomplished expression
of black culture as outside of poetry-outside, even, of his own
culture-Hughes locates the very objective of his poetic project
as beyond a poet's grasp. Music supplants, even renders superfluous,
poetry's irreducible medium-language. I call this subordination
of poetry to music "jazzaphobia," because jazz is at once
an object of desire-the source of a purified inspiration-and a source
of fear-because it represents the subordination of poetry to a signifying
system alien to language.
Further, a jazzaphobic approach to culture devalues individual subjectivity
in favor of a valorization of mass consciousness. For example, mass
consciousness, as opposed to individual subjectivity, is the sole
source of poetic value in "The Negro Artist and the Racial
Mountain." The word "individuality" in that essay
as a result paradoxically refers to a collective identity. This
becomes clear when Hughes measures the problem the black poet faces:
"But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro
art in America-this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire
to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization,
and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible"
[emphasis added] (692). Hughes makes clear the "individuality"
at issue here is a racial type, not the individual subjectivity
of the poet. In writing, "They [the common people] furnish
a wealth of distinctive material for any artist," Hughes does
not refer to an individuality of the singular unique subjectivity,
but rather to an individuality rooted in the common characteristics
of a race. Mass culture has value, Hughes continues, exactly "because
they [the common people] still hold their own individuality in the
face of American standardization" (693). To create "Negro
art," then, and Hughes's own poetic project, is first and foremost
a matter of finding a distinction between social identities, between
the "mold of American standardization," and what he understands
as the "racial individuality" that is black identity.
Individuality here must remain plural: "they" hold "their"
individuality. The conflict, then, is one that can't be solved within
the singular subject.
For Hughes, then, music solves a basic problem in Harlem Renaissance
aesthetics-how to link the elite artist to mass culture, which authorizes
the poet's production and aesthetics. This hierarchy can also be
seen as a reaction to Du Bois's ideal of the "talented tenth,"
in that jazz poetry is a reaction to an older generation's ideal
of cultural progress in favor of the young avant-garde. Accepting
as a premise that writing is an inadequate stand-in for music, of
course, presents a grave problem for the poet-whose medium is in
modern culture inextricably linked to the written word. The moment
where jazz and poetry meet, therefore, is a moment of extreme anxiety
in Hughes's work. While jazz, as "the Negro Artist" claims,
may represent what he calls an "inherent expression,"
that all powerful expression cannot be made available through writing.
Unsurprisingly, this anxiety is particularly evident when a poem
attempts to directly represent music. For example, in the poem "Ma
Man," first published in 1926 and later included in Fine Clothes
to the Jew (1927), Hughes represents the moment when poem and music
coincide as both a moment of the highest inspiration, and simultaneously
as a moment when the written text fragments. The poem reads,
He kin play a banjo.
Lordy, he kin plunk, plunk, plunk.
He kin play a banjo.
I mean plunk, plunk
He plays good when he's sober
An' better, better when he's drunk.
The repetition of lines two and four is a convention of the blues
stanza form, but that repetition also becomes a conscious correction.
The speaker clarifies herself in the fourth line, saying, "I
mean." The second set of repetitions, then, is the one privileged.
The speaker repeats these as if clarifying herself, implying that
the fourth line comes closer to fully expressing her meaning. In
fact, this is strange, because when spoken the repetition of "plunk"
in the line "Lordy, he kin plunk, plunk, plunk" is much
more rhythmic, and therefore one would think a better representation
of music, than the repetition in "I mean plunk, plunk
plunk, plunk," which defies any attempt to read it musically
because it is interrupted by the ellipsis. The ellipsis, marking
a point where the line falters, ruins whatever rhythm with which
you were reading the first syllables.
But in the context of the jazzaphobic subordination of language
to music, this second try at imitation of the banjo is the better
representation of music exactly because it is impossible to read
the words rhythmically. Music's ultimate presence, in this poem,
is signified by the failure of words. The "special communication,"
identified with music, is represented by a gap between the words-the
space marked by the ellipsis. In ellipsis, words fail, and other,
outside, signification is deferred to, literally by the ink on the
page which denotes a point where language falters. The burden of
signification in this gap is shifted onto music. In other words,
jazz offers both the seductive possibility of collective secrets
revealed, and the silencing and bankruptcy of the medium (writing)
through which the poet would turn those secrets into art. The disruptive
presence of perfect expression is signified with a textual mark
that indicates a lack of meaning-an ellipsis. By fixing music-with
its powerful multiplicity of meanings-with graphic signs that denote
the presence of music through the disruption of written meaning,
"Ma Man" reveals the collision and intermixing of writing,
the inexpressible, and nonsense. In the process, this ellipsis reveals
that the special form of communication that music embodies is essentially
anti-poetic. Music is at once the site of the greatest significance,
and the site where poetry is emptied out of meaning.
Critically, however, although the jazzaphobic impulse might be always
present in poetry that appeals to music for meaning, there are more
and less productive uses to which this paradoxical experience might
be put. James Baldwin, for example, explicitly condemns the reliance
on meanings outside of language within Hughes's poetry in his notoriously
scathing 1959 review of Hughes's Selected Poems, titled "Sermon
and Blues." For Baldwin, the intersection of music and poetry
in Hughes's work is merely a failure of Hughes's imagination. Baldwin
refers to Hughes's use of black music and culture in the language
of secret codes, at one point calling it "hieroglyphics."
He criticizes Hughes for not "forc[ing]" these glyphs
"into the realm of art where their meaning would become clear
and overwhelming" ("Sermon," 86). John Hollander
makes a similar point about the relationship between music and poetry
in Vision and Resonance (1985). Hollander writes that "the
music of poetry" is fundamentally a metaphor, and a metaphor
that "yokes by violence together what have become dissimilar
activities" (10). Both Hollander and Baldwin insist that a
poem must employ a type of violence-"force"-in its appeal
to music in order to make the poem meaningful. "'Hey, pop!
/ Re-bop! / Mop!,'" Baldwin writes, quoting lines from Hughes's
1951 poem "Dream Boogie," "conveys much more on Lenox
Avenue than it does in this book, which is not the way it ought
to be" ("Sermon" 86). Hughes's poetry, according
to Baldwin, falls short from doing anything with this language of
secret signs. "Hey, pop! / Re-bop! / Mop!," Baldwin argues,
which in the context of Lenox Avenue is meaningful, flattens into
nonsense in Hughes's poem. This poetry can only refer to these hidden
meanings with an empty gesture, depending on the reader to decode
them using a frame of reference outside and apart from the poem.
The poetry itself, therefore, has the epistemological value of a
Baldwin's argument is that Hughes simply accepts the subordination
of his poems to an outside source of meaning without protest or
even awareness of the effect on a poem. Hughes, Baldwin claims,
does not attempt to exploit the irony of this situation. In the
appeal to language only meaningful on Lenox Avenue, Baldwin implies,
there is no accommodation of the poem's inevitable failure to capture
the significance it gestures at. There is only the hope that the
audience will supply the missing context that turns "Hey, pop!
/ Re-bop! / Mop!" into a poetically meaningful phrase.
But in this, Baldwin underestimates Hughes's poetic sophistication.
My purpose here is to defend Hughes against both his critics and
his friends. Hughes seems quite aware of the problem of a jazzaphobic
hierarchy. This can be seen, I have been arguing, in the ellipsis
in "Ma Man," but further, it is central in the book which
Rampersad and others take as the epitome of Hughes's achievement
in the jazz poem form. Because if Fine Clothes to the Jew, like
"The Negro Artist," celebrates jazz as the source of the
black poet's creativity, it also raises questions about how the
poet can escape the consequences of the subordination of language
to music that this implies. If Fine Clothes includes "Ma Man,"
a poem whose ellipses I have used as an example of graphical subordination
of poetry to music, the book also includes elements that struggle
to find a means of turning attention away from music and back towards
the medium poetry is made of-language. In that, this book is certainly,
as Rampersad writes in "Langston Hughes's Fine Clothes to the
Jew," "the perfect companion piece" to "The
Negro Artist," but because it more fully explores the contradiction
that underlies the aesthetics of discovery that "The Negro
Understanding the importance of jazzaphobia reveals the extent to
which Hughes's work, even in Fine Clothes, where poetry It is worth
a moment to consider the structure of the book itself which underscores
the books jazzaphobic dilemma. The volume opens with the poem "Hey,"
and closes with "Hey Hey," two poems that in 1932 were
published as one two-stanza poem titled "Night and Morn"
(Collected, 627). The book as a whole, therefore, can be read as
a collection of stanzas for an extended lyric poem. The specificity
of the reference to time, also suggests a single oral performance-"Hey"
is set at dusk, "Hey Hey" at dawn as if the poet has been
up all night. The space between "Hey," and "Hey Hey"-the
space in which the poems in the volume occur-also suggests the space
between a repetition, like the structure of jazz. In fact, the very
lack of a grammatical connection between the words (shouldn't there
be a comma? or two exclamation points?) removes any distraction
from the title's status as a repetition. We are given no hints even
on how to say these two "Heys," only confronted with them
On the face of it, then, Fine Clothes elaborately frames itself
as a piece of music: the poems like movements, the words like notes.
The music analogy is extended once again in the recording The Weary
Blues with Langston Hughes that Hughes made in 1958. The opening
track, "Blues Montage," begins with "Hey," and
that section of the album ends with "Hey Hey." But the
book's aspiration to become music is only an appearance. The more
the poems explore their own structure, the more they rediscover
language. "Hey" and "Hey Hey" do not, as one
might expect them to, present the arrival of the blues as wholly
good, or the departure of the music as wholly bad. Instead, they
insist on including the price that must be paid for the elevation
of music over poetry as the source of meaning. The blues voice originates,
these poems declare, in compulsion. In "Hey" the singer
has no control over his or her song:
Sun's a settin',
This is what I'm gonna sing.
Sun's a settin'.
This is what I'm gonna sing:
I feels de blues a comin,
Wonder what de blues'll bring?
The speaker is left a spectator-only able to "wonder"
what is going to happen. He or she cannot know what is coming. The
blues arrives and departs uncontrollably. It arrives and departs
with the force of nature evident in the immutability of the weather,
or the rising and setting of the sun. These are cycles tied to an
elemental force, not to a poet's will. Of course, on balance, this
compulsion would seem to be a good thing. The speaker begins to
sing. He or she begins to feel. Though the blues may leave the speaker
bewildered, they have made him or her an artist.
In the second bookend poem, "Hey Hey," the return of day
and the close of the song/poem/book signify the return of control,
yet because art is founded on compulsion, the return of human agency
may also choke inspiration off. The poem reads,
Sun's a risin',
This is gonna be ma song.
Sun's a risin',
This is gonna be ma song.
I could be blue but
I been blue all night long.
"This is gonna be ma song" may be taken in a negative
sense; in this reading, the speaker claims that this is going to
be all of "ma song" that there is ever going to be. Along
with the passing of the blues, the poet's music and voice is the
passing. Likewise, the singer seems to be worn out by the music
and ready to be done with it. At first glance, then, the pair of
poems narrate an aesthetic founded on an inhuman automatic process.
The force that gives the poems their meaning is unalterably outside
the two poems and their speaker-derived from something wholly uncanny.
This is a mass consciousness taking hold of the speaker.
But is the end of the blues the end or beginning of poetry? These
lines can also be convincingly read as underscoring the new, possessive,
adjective "ma"; now, the speaker can also be understood
to mean, this new song that comes with the break of day is going
to be mine-in contrast to what has come before, which was not mine.
"Ma song," in this reading, signifies the return of voice,
human control and possession. The passing of the blues, in this
second reading, liberates the individual human artist's voice. The
singer's voice not only persists past the time when the blues depart,
but is even liberated from its previous captivity. This is underscored
by final two lines, which, in sharp contrast to the compulsion of
the initial lines of "Hey," present the poet as making
a choice to move beyond the blues with represent a style now fully
We can recognize this mini-drama, confined to the literal margins
of the text, as the attempt to locate in the time before and after
a blues performance a poetry that escapes the gravitational pull
of music. Despite their ostensible imposition of the hierarchy of
music over poetry, these poems reveal the reassertion of poetry
and voice in the margins of the all encompassing signification of
the music. Although the structure of the book itself seems to aspire
to imitate music, it does so in a way that calls attention to the
limitations the blues imposes on language. Further, the book's structure
also insists that poetry bubbles up inevitably, marked by the loss
of that central, unifying, meaning, but redeemed by being within
the province of an individuality.
The same jazzaphobic dynamic is identifiable in the poem that gives
the book its title (usually ascribed to-or blamed on-Carl Van Vechten).
Fine Clothes to the Jew takes its title from a line in the poem,
"Hard Luck," that raises the problem of what the cost
of producing the blues is, and how that cost is to be paid. The
When bad luck overtakes you
Nothin' for you to do.
When hard luck overtakes you
Nothin' for you to do.
Gather up yo' fine clothes
An' sell 'em to de Jew.
In the title, the "fine clothes" can be understood to
refer to the poems themselves, emphasizing the gesture of stripping
away. Thus, the method by which the poems are produced in this volume
is indeed founded on the abandonment of poetry itself-at least to
the extent that poetry is synonymous with "finery" or
conventions of beauty. "In Fine Clothes to the Jew," Rampersad
writes, Hughes takes the blues "to their stripped and bare
extreme" (Rampersad 1986, 160). In getting rid of his clothes,
the speaker literalizes Rampersad's metaphor. Rampersad means to
argue that in "stripping away" poetic conventions (the
"fine clothes") Hughes reveals the new possibilities for
poetics hidden in the bluesman's vernacular voice. But it is important
to notice the very temporary endurance of this model of poetry-the
aspect Hughes draws attention to by figuring the exchange through
the metaphor of the Jew, who is, after all, meant to invoke a pawnshop.
"Hard Luck" shows this process of "stripping down"
to be temporal-it is a gesture. This is a sale, but one sells to
a pawnshop at a loss. The underlying racism of the poem speaks also
to this dilemma. A Jew is, of course, understood to be a shark,
and the speaker gains time by submitting to him. It is not a true
sale, but rather the assumption of a debt that the speaker in "Hard
Luck" acknowledges will never be paid. This is less a new state
of being, in other words, than the deferment of the moment of accountability.
Again, the limiting role of time is implicit also in the structure
of the book itself. By drawing attention to itself as a moment-one
that begins at dusk and ends at dawn- Fine Clothes, like "Hard
Luck," confines itself within a moment that must inevitably
Similarly, in "Ma Man" the lines "He plays good when
he's sober / An' better, better when he's drunk" demonstrate
a similar attribution of the power of blues significance to create
a deficit along with an aesthetic moment. Inspiration comes from
an outside, intrusive and inevitably destructive source. In the
case of "Ma Man," the banjo player's very drunkenness
provides the essential element of skill. The blues are about precisely
this moment of being overwhelmed, but the poems also try to find
a way around this problem through an aesthetic production that happens
despite music and only in its absence. Hughes not only leaves room
for authentic poetic production outside of music and mass consciousness's
influence, he underscores the need for poetry that emerges, fundamentally,
for literary language and the written sign.
In The Big Sea, Hughes distances himself from the title Fine Clothes
to the Jew, which would seem to argue against reading too much into
it. Recounting the public outcry the title provoked among those
who found it anti-Semitic, Hughes proclaimed himself indifferent
to what the book was actually called (Big Sea 264).Yet his alternate
choice for the title, "Brass Spittoons" also dramatizes
the impossibility of shedding finery and convention without cost.
It can even be read as an attempt to recover the power of the conventional
beauty of language.
In "Brass Spittoons" the speaker attempts to separate
out his oppressive existence cleaning spittoons from his attempt
to lead a spiritual life. But even as he attempts to assert the
separation of the product from the conditions of production, his
thoughts are constantly interrupted by an oppressive voice-"Hey
Clean the spittoons, boy.
Clean the spittoons.
The steam in hotel kitchens,
And the slime in hotel spittoons:
Part of my life.
The problem in this passage is to escape the slime which is the
same anywhere. The voice comes in as the speaker tries to distinguish
the slime and degrading work from his own life. The pathos of "part
of my life" is the calm, deliberate tone of the speaker, which
gives the reader confidence he is capable of so much more. It is
sound's very immediacy and power to compel attention that is so
threatening in this poem. Sound is associated with a penetrating
means of getting into the brain. The poem, after all, is violated
by that "Hey, boy!" Sound, the outside of the poem, is
cast as the violator. Sound breaks up the speaker's concentration,
violating his isolation from the oppressive world around him. Worse,
the voice of the boss, in the first quoted line, "Clean the
spittoons, boy," becomes part of the speaker's internal monologue
in its second repetition. It is as though the speaker has internalized
the voice of his oppressor.
But, contrary to the resignation and surrender of "Hard Luck,"
it is exactly an aesthetic appreciation that offers the speaker
a real possibility of separating the terms that threaten to overwhelm
him. The speaker imagines sanctifying the products of his labor
and therefore separating them from the oppression that accompanied
A bright bowl of brass is beautiful to the Lord
Bright polished brass like the cymbals of King David's dancers,
Like the wine cups of Solomon.
In this poem preserving the speaker's individual mind against the
pressures from outside is paramount. And the solution to preserve
the sanctity of the individual mind is the labor of aesthetic production.
The speaker asserts that labor be separated out from the forced
conditions that produce it. The brightness of the brass, the speaker
claims, is "beautiful to the Lord" independently of its
use. The speaker's labor, in creating this 'likeness,' sanctifies
the object through making it beautiful-one can literally see God's
work in the shine, which recalls the shining of the cymbals of King
David. Through the likeness produced, its beauty recalls stories
from the Bible. "Brass Spittoons" holds out the hope that
aesthetic value can be "cleaned up" through hard work,
liberated from the political context that tarnishes it. Finery,
in this process, need not be discarded. It is capable of rehabilitation.
Although the "Hey, boy!" continues to intrude upon the
speaker's thoughts-rendering his solution available only within
his mind-aesthetic labor retains value. The inside, aesthetic, world
may be delusional, but in contrast to the provisional space available
through "stripping down," the creation of beauty provides
the speaker with an important interior space of his own. Aesthetics,
the product of individuality, is the only safe place in a world
of political repression. Beauty and labor, although they may not
change the speaker's objective situation (he remains oppressed),
help keep the mind and imagination free.
Further, in a reversal of the deferment of the highest significance
to sound, in "Brass Spittoons" sound is the medium of
the oppressor's voice. When a purified, holy music does enter into
this poem, it is necessarily through the medium of written language.
The simile "Bright polished brass like the cymbals of King
David's dancers" suggests that the polished brass recalls the
sound and movement of the cymbals and dancers; the comparison of
"bright brass" to "cymbals" does not simply
end with color and shine. "Brass" is a conventional metaphorical
and literal description of music. The word "cymbals" hints
at "symbols," a source of literary meaning. This is a
type of beauty that begins to extend and expand categories of sensing.
Hughes not only hints at the power of words to suggest music, light,
and motion, but poses the highest form of music as one derived from
the written word. In order to be meaningful and protected from the
voice, music takes on fundamentally written/literary qualities of
metaphor and literary image. The production of beauty and meaning
becomes a process that is fundamentally linguistic and written.
In "Brass Spittoons" it is the very inability of the ideas
the words on the page invoke to be realized in sound that creates
their special significance. The literary image hints at meanings
that could not exist in the experience of the senses. Here the very
textual nature of written language is critical to the poem's ability
to suggest music. Rather than a hierarchy in which music makes language
secondary and derivative, it is the metaphoric power of association
that produces the musical effect, not a direct imitative power of
words. In suggesting that sound can be rehabilitated by being subordinated
to language, "Brass Spittoons" brings the hierarchies
of jazzaphobia full circle-sound is derivative of writing. This
is a step beyond mere jazzaphobia; the expected subordination of
poetry to music is overturned.
As a poem that reverses the hierarchy of jazzaphobia, "Brass
Spittoons" is telling evidence against Baldwin's impatient
dismissal of Hughes's use of music. It is also evidence against
the too simple assumption that Hughes unproblematically accepted
poetry's subordination to music as beneficial to his art. It is
important, in other words, to recognize that Hughes's creativity
does not end with the gesture of "stripping down." "Brass
Spittoons," and other poems, are equally concerned with how
meaning can be built back up while still retaining the creative
power of repetition, but applying it to literary language and even
that problematic finery-poetic convention.
In sum, inserting the term "jazzaphobic" into the critical
discourse around Hughes is important if we are to understand the
complexity of Hughes 1920s experiments with poetic form. Hughes's
jazz poem was not simply the discovery of a new, unproblematic,
source of poetic inspiration. Instead, it was an engagement with
how far a poet could take the correspondence between music and the
mass cultural tradition of jazz and the blues and poetry. Jazz is
both a source of inspiration for Hughes, and also a crucial limit
on the range of expression poetry can achieve. In particular, the
later jazz poetry needs to be read in the light of a reaction to
jazzaphobic aesthetics. Particularly poems such as "Ask Your
Mama" and the sonnets in Shakespeare in Harlem are a reaction
against the implicit limitations on language Hughes accepts in his
early jazz poetry against and an attempt to use the jazzaphobic
dilemma to produce a beauty both true to jazz and true to language.
James. "Sermons and Blues." New York Times 29 March 1959.
John. Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form. New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1985.
Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography by Langston Hughes. New
York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940.
Langston. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Ed. Arnold Rampersad.
New York: Alfred K. Knopf, 1994.
Langston. "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain."
The Nation 1926: 692-94.
Arnold. "Langston Hughes's Fine Clothes to the Jew." Callaloo
9.1 (Winter 1986): 144-57.
Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume I: 1902-1941. Vol. 1.
2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Steven C. Langston Hughes and the Blues. Urbana: University of Illinois