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On "Harlem"

Tom Hansen

In a superficial reading of Langston Hughes's poem "Harlem" (later titled "Dream Deferred") one sees only its obvious simplicity. It asks, and provides a series of disturbing answers to, the question, "What happens to a dream deferred?" (line 1). A closer reading reveals the essential disunity of the poem. It is a ground of unresolved conflict. Various elements of its outer body, its form, contend with each other as well as with various elements of its inner body, its structure: that "sequence of IMAGES and ideas which unite to convey the meaning of the poem" (Thrall 473).

Five of the six answers to the opening question are interrogative rather than declarative sentences. However, due to its tentative "Maybe," the sole declarative sentence is far less potent--less truly declarative, one might say--than the final line, that final, forceful, emphatically italicized interrogative, which, in spite of the fact that it is merely one more in a series of questions, is the conclusive, though not the sole and exclusive, answer to the question posed in line 1. The result of all this is a poem so out of joint that its five questions strongly assert and its single assertion tentatively suggests.

In contrast, the poem's typography seems more logical--up to a point. The first and last lines, original question and final answer, begin at the left margin. The five intervening answers are indented, forming a longer stanza of four questions and a much shorter stanza of one declarative sentence. The former are so dramatic that the latter hardly seems to merit the emphasis it receives by being set off as a stanza by itself.

Had Hughes allowed stanza divisions to complement rhyme scheme by making the last three lines into a single concluding stanza and dividing the seven-line stanza between lines 5 and 6, the resulting three stanzas would more clearly reflect the structure, the inner body, of the poem, which consists of three paired oppositions: "dry up" and "fester," "stink" and "sugar over," and "sag" and "explode." But Hughes did not do this. Rhyme is integrated with structure in a way that typography is not. If the typography had been, structure would be that much more evident, and the poem would appear to be more logically divided into stanzas.

The imagery of its oppositions progresses from the visual ("dry up" and "fester"), to the olfactory ("stink") and, in part, gustatory ("syrupy sweet"), to the kinesthetic ("sag") and organic ("explode"). This outward-to-inward progression of imagery subtly draws the reader into the poem--or the poem into the reader, who begins by seeing "out there" the drying up and the festering and who ends by feeling "in here" the slump and the explosion.

Questions that are answers; a penultimate answer so tentative that it more resembles a question; stanza divisions which partially obscure our perception of the poem as a trio of paired oppositions progressing from outer to inner; a rhyme scheme which--at odds with the typography--reinforces the division into paired oppositions, all result in a poem in conflict with itself, pulled in different directions by some of its most basic constituent elements. Yet this surely calculated failure is the measure of the poem's success. Its dis-integration mirrors the continuing failure of American society to achieve harmonious integration of blacks and whites. Few poems so well illustrate Charles Olson's sometimes puzzling dictum, "Form is never more than an extension of content" (Allen 387).


Hughes, Langston. "Harlem." The Panther and the Lash. New York: Knopf, 1951.

Olson, Charles. "Projective Verse." The New American Poetry. Ed. Donald M. Allen. New York: Grove, 1960.

Thrall, William Flint, et al. A Handbook to Literature. New York: Odyssey, 1960.

from The Explicator 58.2 (Winter 2000)

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