A Literary Critic’s Guide to Avoiding Alienation

I would like to emphasize the topic of my previous essay, the importance of aesthetics over politics, by discussing the strong, aesthetically-sound qualities of an exemplary non-white poet’s work.

The poem: “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” by Langston Hughes

I’ve known rivers:

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the

flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln

went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy

bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:

Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

[1926]

The analysis:

Langston Hughes found occasion to write not from a personal, humanistic slant, but rather from the angry political slant: poems such as “Militant” and “Let America Be America Again” are exemplary of Hughes’s descent into political writing. But when he transcended the shackles of his time-period and got in touch with his humanness–instead of his “blackness,” a label which his politics did not erase but only emboldened–he wrote some astonishingly divine poetry, such as “The Negro Speak of Rivers.”

In the poem, we are immediately drawn to the archetypal river-symbol, a traditional metaphor for the life-cycle. This aspect strengthens the poem more than any of its other characteristics, for as Hughes continually mentions that he has known rivers all over the world and throughout time, we are constantly reminded of his humanness. This is perhaps much less shocking today than it was eighty years ago, but the fact remains: Hughes, a black man, is an archetypal human, no different than me, my wife, Abe Lincoln, Elizabeth I, Cleopatra, Odysseus, etc.  Instead of splattering us with pathos that would drag us ruefully down into racial politics, Hughes here gives us a firm testament of his humanity–indeed, our humanity.

This is, I think, how I must feel about Hughes’s poem, for I would find it truly upsetting if an African-American were to plea for equality and then reject the notion that he or she has anything in common with his or her white peers. This, you see, is the murky quagmire that politics brings a text down into: a poet can certainly write about the pain of alienation of “his or her people” based on race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.; but in doing so, the poet risks alienating others, and consequently only falls victim to the ugly system that he or she was struggling against in the first place. A poet should not rub in the reader’s face why he or she is suffering; that he or she is suffering is really all we need to sympathize. Tony Kushner’s breathtaking drama, Angels in America, is a terrific example of this notion: though the various characters are all suffering for a variety of reasons, it is their humanity that causes them to suffer more than anything else–their choices and the consequences. He does not say, “This is suffering that only gay men can feel, so other people can watch if they want to, but they should know this was only meant for my kind;” rather, he proclaims that the characters are suffering from humanistic personal problems that we all face: ignorance, self-loathing, denial, etc. This is why men, women, homosexuals, and heterosexuals alike can read or view Angels in America and take something away from it; Kushner does not alienate.

Thus, the job of every literary critic is to exalt the aesthetic qualities of a text and eschew politics. The study of politics in a text only leads to the further alienation of someone on some level, and that is certainly not a goal I have any interest in pursuing.

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