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Analysis' of Four Poems by Hughes, Dunn, Olds, and Haskins Analysis' of Four Poems by Hughes, Dunn, Olds, and Haskins

Harlem by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

In Langston Hughes’ poem, “Harlem”, the theme of the poem is stated in the first line, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Immediately the poem strikes a universal chord because the vast majority of human experience throughout the ages has encountered a “dream deferred”. Some people let the dream die (“dry up”), while others agonize (“fester like a sore”) about the loss for a lifetime. Still others hold the dream close and use it for comfort (“crust and sugar over”). The didactic nature of the poem reflects the didactic nature of human emotion when faced with loss. The lines “Maybe it just sags, like a heavy load.” are separated from the previous stanza, creating the feeling of ‘sagging’. The images that Hughes invokes are vivid descriptions of the various ways that people handle the loss of a dream. The title, ‘Harlem’, further invokes a specific image of a specific class of people who are constantly barraged with dreams broken.

Because We Are Not Taken Seriously by Stephen Dunn

Some night I wish they’d knock,
on my door, the government men,
looking for the poem of simple truths
recited and whispered among the people.
And when all I give them is silence
and my children are exiled
to the mountains, my wife forced
to renounce me in public,
I’ll be the American poet
whose loneliness, finally is relevant,
whose slightest movement
ripples cross-country.

And when the revolution frees me,
its leaders wanting me to become
“Poet of the Revolution,” I’ll refuse
and keep a list of their terrible reprisals
and all the dark things I love
which they will abolish.
With the ghost of Mandelstam
on one shoulder, Lorca on the other,
I’ll write the next poem, the one
that will ask only to be believed
once it’s in the air, singing.

This poem evoked images of the artist forever seeking to verbalize the truth of its generation and being persecuted for it only to then be hailed “great” after they die. In the line “whose loneliness, finally, is relevant” there is the feeling of a person who has been ostracized because of their ‘radical’ thinking. Dunn seeks to give voice to his frustration, and even anger, at those who find his work threatening to social order today but whose descendants will lionize him after he is long gone. The poem could have been written by any artist, at any juncture of history. The message rings true to anyone who has ever tried to tell the truth.

High School Senior (from The Wellspring) by Sharon Olds

For seventeen years, her breath in the house
at night, puff, puff, like summer
cumulus above her bed,
and her scalp smelling of apricots
--this being who had formed within me,
squatted like a bright tree-frog in the dark,
like an eohippus she had come out of history
slowly, through me, into the daylight,
I had the daily sight of her,

like food or air she was there, like a mother.
I say “college,” but I feel as if I cannot tell
the difference between her leaving for college
and our parting forever—I try to see
this house without her, without her pure
depth of feeling, without her creek-brown
hair, her daedal hands with their tapered
fingers, her pupils dark as the mourning cloak’s
wing, but I can’t. Seventeen years
ago, in the this room, she moved inside me,
I looked at the river, I could not imagine
my life with her. I gazed across the street,
and saw, in the icy winter sin,
a column of steam rush up away from the earth.
There are creatures whose children float away
at birth, and those who throat-feed their young
for weeks and never see them again. My daughter
is free and she is in me—no, my love
of her is in me, moving in my heart,
changing chambers, like something poured
from hand to hand, to be weighed and then reweighed.

The imagery in Olds’ “High School Senior”, calls forth feelings of not a despondent loss but of a nostalgic loss. The author depicts the departure of her daughter leaving for college. The line “and her scalp smelling of apricots” brings the smell of a baby’s scalp to the readers mind, reminding them of the fragileness of life. The last lines, “like something poured from hand to hand, to be weighed and then reweighed” bespeak the enduring nature of a mother’s love. The theme of the poem is such a commonplace one, a scene that is played out in households around the world, for generations past and future, yet Olds relates it in such a way that the reader can feel the loneliness of a mother sending her child off into the world.

Loveby Lola Haskins

She tries it on, like a dress.
She decides it doesn’t fit,
and starts to take it off.
Her skin comes, too.
For so few lines, the imagery in this poem is remarkable. Anyone who has ever loved and lost love knows the feeling of their ‘skin’ “coming off”. Haskins conveys in four short lines the experience of slipping into someone else’s soul and then the knowing that the experience will leave you changed forever, that somehow, in loving and losing another person, they take away a piece of you when they leave.


K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2006

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