Feb 27 2015
The following post was written by Kaytlin McIntyre, Literary and Casting Associate.
Dear Elizabeth currently playing on the Leo K stage, is the narrative of two poets, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, and the deep, fruitful friendship that developed primarily through written correspondence.
Another letter writer has been in the news lately. Langston Hughes, jazz poet and leader of the Harlem Renaissance, penned hundreds of poems in his lifetime, enough to fill 20 volumes. In The Selected Letters of Langston Hughes a trio of editors sorted through his written correspondence and compiled a series of highlights.
Hughes was not a gossip. His letters hold few criticisms of other writers and are typically graceful and accepting of occasional condemnation of his simple, uncomplicated style. Nor did he write love letters; Hughes never married and his letters give little insight to secret romance or scandal. Instead, he would often write friends about his poetry, his city, and what it meant to be an African American in the first part of the 20th Century. The letters of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop illuminate the adventurous and sometimes rocky relationships the two poets forged through their lifetimes. Langston Hughes wrote tirelessly and engaged the greater socio-political conflicts rather than the personal dramas. His story would be a solid but uneventful account of a constant worker – what he was often had very little to do with who he was.
His leadership position in the Harlem Renaissance went on to inspire writers like August Wilson and the civil rights movement. But his position as a figure-head for the African American artistic community was not always a comfortable position for him.
In a letter to his mentor and benefactor Charlotte Mason:
“I ask you to help the gods to make me good, and to make me make me clean, and to make me strong and to make me fine that I might stand aflame before my people, powerful and wise, with eyes that can discern the ways of truth. I am nothing now — no more than a body of dust possessing no without wisdom, having no right to see. Physically and spiritually I pass through the dark valley, a dryness in my throat, a weariness in my eyes, fingers twisted in to strange numb shapes when I wake up at night, the mind troubled and confused in the face of things it does not understand, the mouth silent because there is no one to talk to, the cool sweet air burning the lungs, the hot sun cold to the body.”
His anguish and uncertainty is beautiful poetry. He doubts his abilities as a beacon for the black community but so easily demonstrates his natural talent. Letter writing wasn’t only a matter of familial correspondence for Hughes, it was practice in his medium, illuminating the human experience in plain English. The first time he penned one of his most famous poems, “I, Too” was in a letter to Alain Locke, another leader in the Harlem Renaissance:
Hughes lacked the committed pen pal relationship of Lowell and Bishop, but his letters are a further testimony to the power of poetic language as communication.
Is there anything more seductive than a poem written just for you?