An Unexpected Kinship in the Poetry of Langston Hughes and Dorothy Parker

langston-hughes-with-hat-on When reading poetry, I often make connections between different poems and poets. Whether thematically or in tone or subject, my brain bridges one book of poetry with another and then on to another and on to another.  So when I read the Selected Poems of Langston Hughes, I was expecting to be reminded of other great African American writers – whether poets like Countee Cullen who were writing at the same time as Langston Hughes during the Harlem Renaissance or those, like Maya Angelou – whose poetry I adore- who would have certainly been influenced by him. And that was certainly something that I saw plenty of when I was reading the book.  But what I wasn’t expecting was how often I would read a Langston Hughes poem and be reminded of Dorothy Parker.

Dorothy ParkerI suppose it’s not that surprising if you stop and think about it. Both Hughes and Parker were living and writing in New York City during the same time period so maybe it makes perfect sense that there were be a certain sympathetic vibration between their work. It’s just that I had never really connected these two writers in my mind before. I guess I had a preconceived notion – based on the few Langston Hughes poems I had read before – that his work was almost all serious and about race, the fight for civil liberties and jazzy, weary blues. And, while I know that Dorothy Parker did tackle many of those subjects in short stories like Arrangement in Black and White, when I think of her poetry I think of witty, snarky rhymes that trip off the tongue while drinking martinis at the Algonquin. Still, when I read the Selected Poems, I was really pleasantly surprised to find –  in between the big poems like “I, Too, Sing America”  and Harlem, – there were a lot of great poems with the same sort of wry, dry humor that I have come to love in Dorothy Parker’s verses.  For example, I could easily imagine Hughes’ “Little Lyric,” which goes:

I wish the rent
Was heaven sent

in a book of poems by Dorothy Parker. And Parker’s  poems The Flaw in Paganism and Faute de Mieux seem to share a certain philosophical understanding with Langston Hughes poems, like this one:

Folk, I’m telling you,
Birthing is hard
And dying is mean –
So get yourself
A little loving
In between

In many of both Parker’s and Hughes poems, I find a flippant fatalism that is just fascinating. Neither of them have any illusions about the way life usually goes but they never lose their sense of humor about it. It doesn’t hurt the comparison I am making that Langston Hughes seems to (at least in this collection) take on the battle of the sexes as often from a woman’s point of view as he does with a male speaker. My favorite example is:

Ballad of the Girl Whose Name was Mud

A girl with all that raising,
It’s hard to understand
How she could get in trouble
With a no-good man.

The guy she gave her all to
Dropped her with a thud.
Now amongst decent people,
Dorothy’s name is mud

But nobody’s seen her shed a tear;
Nor seen her hang her head.
Ain’t even heard her murmur,
Lord, I wish I was dead!

No! The hussy’s telling everybody –
Just as though it was no sin –
That if she had a chance
She’d do it agin’

What I love about this poem – and what reminds me so much of Dorothy Parker’s writing – is the unabashed, unrepentant, pragmatic approach to life, love, and sex and the sly, knowing humor so evident in the last verse. I’ve always adored it in Dorothy Parker’s work and I am thrilled to find more of it in Langston Hughes poems. So while I wasn’t expecting to make this connection between these  two writers, I am really happy that I did because recognizing the common themes and humor really enhanced my reading experience and gave me a lot interesting things to think about.

Are there any unexpected literary pairings that you have come across in your reading? If so, I would love to hear about it. Leave a comment and let’s compare notes!


About Ciarrai

Hi. My name is Kerry but here online I tend to go by the Gaelic version of my name, Ciarrai. I am a woman in my mid-30's who lives on Long Island, NY, with my husband, Rob, several guitars, a Nikon D40, more yarn, beads and books than I care to admit to and a cat who has a million nicknames and quite a few theme songs. I have a B.A. in Psychology and have recently returned to college to pursue a teaching degree so that I can eventually get a job as a High School English teacher. In addition to my major obsessions (Reading, Beading, Knitting, Music and Photography), I also enjoy playing Board Games, going to Renaissance Faires, Museums and Broadway Musicals.
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