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The Blues and Jazz Poetry of Langston Hughes
A Personal Appreciation By
Ray Smith


I first came across the work of the American poet Langston Hughes by complete accident around about 1994. Although I’ve been a poet myself since my primary school days and a reader and collector of poetry books old and new for all of my life, I had never come across any of his work nor read his books or even heard any mention of his name. It turned out to be the best accident of my life. 

I’m also an artist and it was around this same time that I was experimenting with paper collage as a medium. I’d produced one picture of jazz and blues singer Billie Holiday and also one of the ‘New Orleans Street Parade’ which always heralds the start of the Marsden Jazz Festival weekend in October each year. These collages are typically made from a mixture of photographs I’ve taken myself plus bits of leaflets and most of all, pieces of torn paper pages from the colour supplements. The finished work is sometimes augmented or embellished with ink, acrylic, watercolour or some other medium for effect. 

At that time, I had all my friends and neighbours saving their weekend supplements for me and it was while I was leafing through a fresh batch of these colour supplements for suitable material that I came across a book review of The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. It opened my eyes and mind to his poetry and I resolved to track down his work in the second hand book shops. This was to prove a very difficult task as his books seemed non-existent and very hard to come by, but I eventually succeeded with one volume. This was just before the internet revolutionised the way we can all now research and obtain information and it’s much easier nowadays, of course, with almost all of his poetry and work being freely available online, together with his complete life story.  

I went on to produce a collage that I titled ‘Night Time in Harlem’ which I then used to illustrate Langston Hughes’s poem ‘Harlem Night Club.’ I’ve since continued to use this device of illustrating poems of my own as well as other writers, along with the reverse action of writing a poem for and about a certain picture. Not all of these collages or paintings of mine are on the subject of Blues and Jazz, but I’ll illustrate some of Hughes’s poems with my own artwork and photographs as well as other selected material. 

Note: this is a personal appreciation of the Blues and Jazz Poetry of Langston Hughes including a brief biography for the general reader and therefore not a subjective appraisal of all his other work. I’ve listed his output for those who want to follow up his other fiction, plays, etc. and listed all my sources for this article.

Ray Smith
October 2010
© Copyright 2010 Ray Smith. All Rights Reserved.

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