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Reconstructing two poets who suffered taking the middle path

Selected Letters of Langston Hughes

Edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel

Knopf

442 pages, $35

James Merrill: Life and Art

By Langdon Hammer

Knopf

913 pages, $40

The Weary Blues

By Langston Hughes

Knopf

91 pages, $26

By William L. Morris

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Here are two 20th century American poets who took the path less traveled – the middle path – and their reputations suffered for it, at least during their lifetimes. But now major retrospectives are underway, rebuilding their reputations. And showing that without their voluminous correspondence and unselfish support, many of their fellow writers would not have been discovered and/or prospered.

Decades before “Black Is Beautiful,” Langston Hughes insisted on the idea that African-Americans were fully functional human beings just the way they were because he was fortunate enough to see them acting that way during the Harlem Renaissance. Unfortunately when the time came for his proteges to share the spotlight with him all he got was viciousness.

“Every time I read Langston Hughes I am amazed all over again by his genuine gifts – and depressed that he has done so little with them,” James Baldwin observed in the New York Times in 1959.

Hughes seldom responded in kind, as this book of his correspondence shows, but it must have hurt to watch people he’d helped mock his work and, even more distressing, turn on each other. The way black writers turned on Zora Neale Hurston for not being radical enough and sending her to oblivion as a maid in Fort Pierce, Fla., is a tragic story without parallel in American literary life.

This collection of his correspondence is not the book you need to read if you want to understand his life. For that you need to read the two-volume biography by one of the editors of this book: Arnold Rampersad, “The Life of Langston Hughes.” This is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand African-American culture in the 20th century.

A generation younger, James Merrill was rich. His father co-founded the stock brokerage Merrill Lynch. He never had to work for a living but he was a disciplined writer who lived for the hours spent writing. He didn’t suffer the ups and downs of his contemporaries but he was sensitive to their plight. Like Hughes he supported fellow writers, including Elizabeth Bishop. Merrill’s support was often financial as well as collegial.

In the beginning of his career he wrote in traditional forms. This assured him limited response from young writers everywhere. But his reputation as a hard worker grew and he began to loosen up and even wrote a long narrative poem about the voices he heard while he and his partner consulted a Ouija board. Maybe Merrill inherited some of his father’s psychic ability that he used to play the market.

Some people trust their instrument so much that they think every insight can be made into a poem. Merrill was a craftsman with a formidable instrument but the results were as often as not more prosaic than poetic. But in our age of emails, acronyms, inscrutable abbreviations and emojis, excellent writing of any sort is to be valued.

He seemed to be behind the curve more often than not, still writing in meter and rhyme when others like Robert Lowell and his friend Elizabeth Bishop had abandoned it for free verse. The result is he doesn’t have that knock-out poem that the others do like “Skunk Hour” by Lowell or “The Fish” by Bishop.

Hammer’s biography of Merrill appears to contain every relevant fact and epiphany of Merrill’s all-too-short life. Hammer is the head of the English Department at Yale, a school that practically invented the study of modern poetry. Anyone who wants to connect the dots of American poetry in the 20th century must wade through this book. Merrill was at the center of it all.

To celebrate the publication of “Selected Letters of Langston Hughes,” Knopf has reprinted his first book of poetry, “The Weary Blues.”

Hughes is writing jazz and he hears the music that less fortunate readers do not hear. His poems are like the lyrics printed on the back of the album where the recording is missing.

Maybe this is what Baldwin was unkindly referring to in his nasty review of his friend’s poetry. But what Hughes did for African-American literature, Allen Ginsberg finished off for the rest of modern literature – he restarted the possibility of oral poetry in a culture where poetry had become riveted to the printed page.

It was prescient of Hughes to associate poetry with jazz and the blues so early on. “The Weary Blues” was first published in 1926! Who knows what might have happened to black literature if it had not resisted the temptation to join the melting poet and blend in. Obviously black immigration was never voluntary. But the temptation to abandon their roots had to be fought with every new generation and no one fought harder than Hughes. And what resulted is a literature that creates loyalty unlike any other in America.

Without Hughes the next generation of poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, one of his many discoveries, might not have flourished.

I had the good fortune of taking “Miss Brooks” (that’s what her many fans called her) to speak to my creative writing class at Attica Correctional Facility. My class at the prison was never so well attended before or after. And as she recited her poems they were with her, reciting the choruses. It was a form of poetry the inmates had introduced to me called “toasts.” Without Hughes insisting it was all right for African-Americans to use forms they were comfortable with, I doubt that that moment would have existed.

It was an eye-opening experience for me. I’ve been to many poetry readings – even ones by Allen Ginsberg – but none like that. There’s a loyalty to art that is unquestioned and never betrayed, though the African-American artists themselves are very wicked to each other at times. Their audience is unrelenting in its loyalty.

Hughes might not have written the greatest works of African-American literature in the last century but he supported African-American writers with the same unquestioning fervor as those prisoners felt toward Gwendolyn Brooks in Attica prison. Brooks was one of his discoveries.

In order to start to understand Hughes’ contribution, one must read the two-volume biography by one of the editors of this volume of Hughes’ correspondence. Then read these letters. They are lovingly presented with many helpful notes and an excellent index. The correspondence is intriguing but only a starting point for the study of African-American culture in our society. And that study is essential because, as Allen Ginsberg said at the end of his visit to Attica prison, “The Blues is the only original art form in America.”

William L. Morris is the co-inventor of The Buffalo News poetry pages. He now lives and writes in Florida. While he lived in Buffalo, he taught a creative writing course in the Attica Correctional Facility.