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Poet for a New Generation
NPR's Vertamae Grosvenor Shares Her Love of Langston Hughes

Listen Listen to Vertamae Grosvenor's essay.

Listen Listen to Langston Hughes recite his own poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."

photo gallery Read more at the NOW with Bill Moyers Web site.

Langston Hughes, circa 1942

Langston Hughes, circa 1942
Photo: Library of Congress

The writings of the American poet Langston Hughes reach across generations, cultures and languages. Celebration of what would have been his 100th birthday today inspired this essay by NPR's Vertamae Grosvenor:

Feb. 1, 2002 -- My granddaughter Charlotte likes to make up games. She has one she calls "deadline." To play deadline you need a phone and lots of pencils, pens and papers scattered about.

And when the toy phone rings you say, "I can't talk now, I'm on deadline!"

One day, among some of Charlotte's "deadline" papers, I found a Langston Hughes poem. And it was in Spanish….

Charlotte learned the poem "In Time of Silver Rain" in first grade. Her teacher was surprised that I was surprised to learn that Langston Hughes' work was in a bilingual, elementary school textbook.

I went on and on and on to Charlotte about how important Langston Hughes was. She groaned at me -- "I know! I know!" Clearly she did know.

En Tiempo de Lluvia

En tiempo de lluvia
alzan sus alas de sedas
las mariposas
para contemplar
el arco-iris
y ver retoñar las
hojas nuevas
Alegremente ninños y niñas
van cantando
En tiempo de lluvia
empieza una nueva vida
empieza la primavera.

Langston Hughes

But I couldn't stop. "Charlotte," I said, "did you know that Langston Hughes did not like cold weather, the opera Aida, the card game bridge or the taste of parsnips? That in 1937, he was a correspondent for Baltimore's Afro American Newspaper during the Spanish Civil War; and when he was the new kid at a high school in a small Illinois town, a boy in class nominated him to be class poet?

"And Charlotte, did you know that his mother recited classical poetry at home and a teacher introduced him to free verse -- the poems of Carl Sandberg and Edna St. Vincent Millay?"

Langston Hughes liked the poems of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, hot weather, goats' milk, jazz and lyrical lines -- "Life for me ain't been no crystal stair," "The sweet flypaper of life," "A raisin in the sun," "Crumbs from the tables of joy."


10-year-old Charlotte

Poor Charlotte. I couldn't let Langston Hughes go. "Did you know that he wrote one of his most famous poems in only 15 minutes on the back of an envelope when he was just 18? 'I've known rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.'"

I told Charlotte that Langston Hughes was a worldly man -- worked on freighters that sailed to the west coast of Africa and to Europe. He traveled to Cuba, Haiti and other islands in the West Indies. He translated the works of other poets from the French and from the Spanish.

Langston Hughes found poetry in ordinary places and ordinary people. He made finding poetry everywhere seem deceptively simple. He wrote like this: "So I pick up my life and a one-way ticket... Gone up north. Gone out west. Gone."

Browse through more NPR stories on Black History Month and Langston Hughes.

Other Resources

• The U.S. Library of Congress has a biography of Langston Hughes that puts his life into the context of the Harlem Renaissance and other major historical events.

• PBS has an online biography of Langston Hughes as part of its I Hear America Singing series.

In Depth

• Read a biography of Vertamae Grosvenor.