Langston Hughes and Dissecting Poetry with 9th Graders

hughesOne of my all time favorite poets is Langston Hughes, a keystone in the Harlem Renaissance chapter of American cultural history.  Barely out of high school, he had his first poem published, and his success was greatly popularized because he was one of the first poets to use the influence of jazz rhythm (jazz poetry) and dialect in his verse.  He famously wrote about the period that “the negro was in vogue” which was later paraphrased as “when Harlem was in vogue.”  This is seen in his famous poem, Mother to Son.

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Mother_and_Son

Mother to Son

BY LANGSTON HUGHES

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
Bare.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
Langston Hughes, “Mother to Son” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes. Reprinted with the permission of Harold Ober Associates Incorporated.

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Today’s class discussion centered around the metaphor that Hughes’ narrator uses to describe what her life has been, or rather not been: a crystal stair.  We began by brainstorming words and images that are associated with the term “crystal.”

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We then began to talk about why this would be a particularly unfitting material to use in a staircase.  The summation of our discussion was that having a staircase made out of crystal would be foolish because it could be damaged easily as people tend to be less than delicate as they tromp up and down them.  My students also agreed that anybody who would actually have a crystal staircase would be foolish and must love to waste their money on frivolous things…I believe the name Lebron James was brought up.

A natural connection between what a staircase made out of crystal was and what the narrators’ life must have been like if it was indeed the opposite of a crystal stair came quite easily to my students.  They were able to support their summation with additional details;

It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
Bare.

One brave soul raised their hand and offered the following observation about the structure of the poem, the way in which Hughes planted the word “bare” on its own, lonely line:

Student M: Mrs. Ferrari – when the word “bare” is on its own line, do you think that Langston Hughes did this on purpose?

Me: Well I have my thoughts, but what do you think?

Student M: I kind of think he did.  I mean, “bare” means empty or exposed.  You can’t get more exposed and empty than being out there without your friends.

I’d say that’s a pretty damn good observation.

2 thoughts on “Langston Hughes and Dissecting Poetry with 9th Graders

  1. Amanda, thank you for sharing! I’m new to high school and Langston Hughes is in our curriculum for the second week of school! Yay???

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