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YPL Poem of the Week

September 26, 2022: Garrett Hongo – The Legend

Garrett Hongo (1951- –) is an American poet and academic born in Hawaii.  His work often draws upon his Japanese ancestry, Japanese-American history, and his own experiences as an Asian American.  He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1980.

“The Legend” is a narrative poem inspired by a news program Hongo watched, bewildered and disgusted that the victim of the callous shooting was so casually dismissed, as if, because he was Asian, he was less than human and his life/death mattered less.  The poem features many of the themes most important to Hongo – troubles that immigrants in America face, questioning one’s own ethnic identity, the division between Asian and Western cultures – as well as alienation and violence in America’s cities.

Throughout the poem, Hongo tries to give character and humanity to the man, providing details about who he was and what he was doing – making an effort to make the poem about the man – whereas the news story was about the criminal.  Interestingly, Hongo never names the man – nor does he know his exact ethnicity – but he knows artists and philosophers and the names of specific makes of cars… Anonymity, alienation, and identity are important themes in the poem, and are key concepts Hongo wants you to keep considering long after you’ve read.  

September 19, 2022: Langston Hughes – So Tired Blues

Langston Hughes (1901 – 1967) was an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist from Joplin, Missouri. One of the earliest innovators of the literary art form called jazz poetry, Hughes is best known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. 

Growing up in a series of Midwestern towns, Hughes became a prolific writer at an early age. He moved to New York City as a young man, where he made his career.   Although he dropped out of Columbia University, he gained notice from New York publishers, first magazines and then book publishers, and became known in the creative community in Harlem.

When we look back at Hughes’ work, we can’t help but notice that many of his poems were written in a free-form style – loose, light, almost like improvisational jazz music.  The poets and writers of Harlem and the jazz musicians of that time and place are almost interchangeable, with the two art forms sharing voice and style in so many ways.

In this poem, “So Tired Blues,” Hughes also seems to borrow from blues music’s rhythm and style – if you read it at just the right pace, you can almost picture an old blues guitarist up on stage, sunglasses on, their hat pulled low – singing these lyrics with a cool blues guitar riff playing between the lines.  Like blues, I feel like a lot of us can relate to Hughes words – just wanting the day to speed up sometimes, so we can hurry up and get to the part where we get to put our feet up and relax.  

Since we can’t stop singing “So Tired Blues” like we’re in Buddy Guy’s club in Chicago, it leads us to the question: What other pieces of literature do you think connect really well with music?

September 12, 2022: Ogden Nash – A Word to Husbands

Ogden Nash (1902 – 1971) was an American poet well known for his light verse, of which he wrote over 500 pieces. With his unconventional rhyming schemes, he was declared by The New York Times the country’s best-known producer of humorous poetry.  Nash was best known for surprising, pun-like rhymes, sometimes with words deliberately misspelled for comic effect, as in his retort to Dorothy Parker’s humorous dictum, Men seldom make passes / At girls who wear glasses:

          A girl who’s bespectacled
          May not get her nectacled

In this example, the word “nectacled” sounds like the phrase “neck tickled” when rhymed with the previous line.

Sometimes the words rhyme by mispronunciation rather than misspelling, as in:

         Farewell, farewell, you old rhinoceros,
         I’ll stare at something less prepoceros

The poem “A Word to Husbands” is a fun example of Nash’s work, and may just be great advice sometimes. It makes us ask the question: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten from a piece of literature?

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