James Smethurst: On "The Cat and the Saxophone"

One characteristic of Hughes's poetry from his earliest work is his representation of a wide range of speaking folk subjects. In The Weary Blues (1926), most of the poems are in an overtly authorial voice that, if not exactly high, is clearly distinct from the African-American folk subject. But even in The Weary Blues there are poems, such as "Negro Dancers" and "The Cat and The Saxophone (2 A.M.)," spoken in "folk" or "popular" African-American voices clearly distinguished from that of the poet. In "The Cat and The Saxophone (2 A.M.)," two vernacular voices, that of each poem's speaker (or speakers) and that of jazz, emerge simultaneously in a manner not unlike the dadaist "simultaneous poems" of Tristan Tzara and Richard Huelsenbeck, as well as the notions of montage in the work of early Soviet filmmakers, particularly Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov:

EVERYBODY

Half-pint,-

Gin?

No, make it

LOVES MY BABY

corn. You like

liquor,

don't you honey?

It is perhaps a little banal pointing out all the ways in which this poem is formally "modernist"--simultaneous voices, fragmented syntax, irregular line length (including one-word [and even one exclamation point] lines), un-"poetic" diction, lines beginning with lowercase words that emphasize the "natural" spoken aspect of the lines, lines entirely in uppercase, and so on. The particular aspect of this poem that is crucial in terms of the development of Hughes's vernacular poetry in the 1930s and 1940s, and that would distinguish this writing from that of Sterling Brown's vernacular poetry in the 1930s, is Hughes's attempt to represent a number of simultaneous voices within a single work. In short, Hughes's work here is a perfect example of Robert Pinsky's notion of "formal heteroglossia" that Pinsky claims is the distinguishing mark of American modernism. However, since Hughes is rarely read against the work of the more linguistically oriented modernists, it is worth noting that what Hughes seems to be doing here is not all that different from sections of William Carlos Williams's 1923 Spring and All.

From The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946. Copyright © 1999 by Oxford University Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title James Smethurst: On "The Cat and the Saxophone" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author James Smethurst Criticism Target Langston Hughes
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 13 Sep 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946
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