Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Langston Hughes - A Dream Deferred

A Dream Deferred

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

---Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes’ A Dream Deferred

All month long I’ve shared my favorite poems with all of you. I’ve taken you into my thoughts and laid out my interpretations, leaving it up to you to agree or disagree. Truthfully, I don’t think you have a choice; the poem will speak to you or it will fall on deaf ears. The poem might not speak to you the first time you read it, but in later encounters it will resonate (as I pointed out last night with Robert Frost’s Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening). Joseph Brodsky, the Russian writer who spent much of his life in the US, theorized that every person should know one poet cover-to-cover. There are many poets that I know thoroughly, but I’m still searching for the poet that I’ll know completely in the way Joseph Brodsky advocated. This search, this quest, is about making a dream come true, about avoiding the deferment and explosion.

Langston Hughes is for many people the poet Joseph Brodsky spoke of. Hughes was a witty, courageous writer. A major figure of the Harlem Renaissance, he was more than a witness and activist; you need only look at a handful of his poems to understand how diverse a writer Langston Hughes was. A Dream Deferred is undoubtedly Langston Hughes’ most famous poem. (Yes, Lorraine Hansberry borrowed from Langston for the title of her iconic play A Raisin In The Sun) I’m consistently intrigued by poems that “crossover” and achieve mainstream appeal and significance. Why will Rudyard Kipling’s If or Robert Frost’s The Road Less Traveled be quoted at a thousand high school and college graduations this spring? Why will a young man woo his beautiful would-be girlfriend with Pablo Neruda’s Love Sonnets? Why does A Dream Deferred seem to spread, seem to “explode” and dazzle young minds? These are questions with simple answers, in fact I’ve already answered them. These poems speak to people en masse. So, then, the ultimate question becomes why do these poems not just speak to people, but speak to overwhelmingly large groups of people. Poetry lab is in session, let’s take on A Dream Deferred as experiment number one.

The poem begins with a question that excludes no one. I’ve never met anyone who has no dreams (and I hope to never meet anyone so hopeless as to have no dreams). Dreams are a universal currency, stockpiled at night when the world itself slows, but never sleeps. Why are dreams important? They serve as motivation, inspiration, and the almighty hope that each of us requires. Our society is plagued with circumstances that are disheartening; Langston Hughes knew this---he lived this---but he still had dreams. He had dreams he acted on and dreams that dried “up / like a raisin in the sun.” I love that simile; I love all the similes in this poem. A dream deferred would seem to die from inactivity and lack of effort, but it would also seem to die from constant thought and the inability to release it, hence the reference to a dream that “fester(s) like a sore---And then run(s).”

What else would a dream deferred resemble? Rotten meat. A Syrupy Sweet. I buy both of these. I can smell the stink of my deferred dreams. I can taste the sugar of the dreams I pursued but never fully realized, still hoping that I can bring them to fruition. And I’ll always feel the weight of the dreams I waited on and said I’d one day pursue. Those are the “heavy load.” With that heaviest of similes looming over the end of the poem, Langston Hughes steers the poem in a completely fresh direction. He bookends the poem’s initial question that launched us into a world of memorable similes with another question: “Or does it explode?” This ending is pure genius. It’s so natural that I wonder if it was the first piece of the poem to arise in Langston Hughes’ mind. The ending is not cartoonish as some of the other similes in the poem are, it opens into the most frightening possibility: that our dreams can explode. With no other similes, no other images, this is what Hughes leaves us with---the abrupt ending of a catastrophically exploding dream. This is why the poem has crossed over: the daunting mystery of imploding and exploding dreams, the hanging silence, and the new dreams that will rise like dust from the kicked up tracks of dreams deferred.

No comments: