Talking about poems just for the pleasure of it

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Langston Hughes, "Harlem Sweeties"

Have you dug the spill
Of Sugar Hill?
Cast your gims
On this sepia thrill:
Brown sugar lassie,
Caramel treat,
Honey-gold baby
Sweet enough to eat.
Peach-skinned girlie,
Coffee and cream,
Chocolate darling
Out of a dream.
Walnut tinted
Or cocoa brown,
Pomegranate-lipped
Pride of the town.
Rich cream-colored
To plum-tinted black,
Feminine sweetness
In Harlem's no lack.
Glow of the quince
To blush of the rose.
Persimmon bronze
To  cinnamon toes.
Blackberry cordial,
Virginia Dare wine--
All those sweet colors
Flavor Harlem of mine!
Walnut or cocoa,
Let me repeat:
Caramel, brown sugar,
A chocolate treat.
Molasses taffy,
Coffee and cream,
Licorice, clove cinnamon
To a honey-brown dream.
Ginger, wine-gold,
Persimmon, blackberry,
All through the spectrum
Harlem girls vary--
So if you want to know beauty's
Rainbow-sweet thrill,
Stroll down luscious,
Delicious, fine Sugar Hill.


Isn't praise one of the important traditional tasks taken up by poets?  Poets praise the natural world, the deeds of heroes, and the beauty of women.  Praising-- using words to delineate, celebrate, and enjoy whatever is good-- makes us more human; it shows that we are not defined by the struggles of life-- the struggle to survive, the struggle to get ahead.  We can recognize what is praiseworthy, and can stop now and then to contemplate it.

I would say that with this poem Hughes is taking a strain of the Western poetic tradition and claiming it for his own.  The glories of whiteness have often been a theme in praise of women, and here we have the glories of brownness, in all their delicious variety.  The pace is leisurely, and consciously so.  I like the way the speaker circles back to the same comparisons-- "Let me repeat:/ Caramel, brown sugar,/ A chocolate treat."  He won't be hurried or constrained in his praise; there's a sense of joyous, unstinting celebration here, continuing through the last line, with its extra stress added in for good measure.  We can hear the speaker's warm affection for the subject of his praise, which is not only the girls of Sugar Hill, but the neighborhood, the community, itself:  "All these sweet colors/ Flavor Harlem of mine!"

11 comments:

  1. I like this. I forget to praise; I never forget to complain.

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  2. Yes, it doesn't necessarily come naturally! It's an art. I've been thinking about the last two lines of Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," in which he's giving a task to poets: "In the prison of his days/ Teach the free man how to praise."

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  3. Glow of the quince (a woman's beauty)
    To blush of the rose (a man's eyes).

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