books, personal, poetry, school, writing

Throwback Thursday: Poetry Comparison Angelou/Hughes

Throwback Thursday, where, essentially I post old writing samples, essays and short stories that I dig up from my pile of hoarded papers and school assignments or from the depths of my computer. So everyone can see how my writing has changed/improved over the years.

With ironic diction and differing rhyme scheme, both “Harlem Hopscotch” by Maya Angelou and “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes convey the relationship, particularly for African-Americans, between being an individual and conforming to society. Irony plays a large role, contrasting expectations and realities of individuals in society.

Much of the message of a poem comes from the structure and rhyme scheme. For both poems, “Harlem Hopscotch” by Maya Angelou and “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes, this holds true. “Harlem Hopscotch” uses an AABBCC etc. rhyme scheme, resembling a child’s rhyming game much like hopscotch, conveying how even child can feel the pressure of society to conform. The poem is fourteen lines, like a sonnet but the rhyme scheme differs from traditional sonnet rhyme schemes, showing level of conformity to traditional poetry while introducing individual style, much as Maya Angelou is showing the balance in the relationship between individualism and conformity to society for acceptance, a delicate balance for many African-Americans. Childish things like hopscotch are often seen as unimportant or of less merit and Angelou bringing it to the center is unexpected and thus ironic. Compared to “Harlem Hopscotch”, Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B” is a free-verse poem. “Theme for English B” details an assignment he was given – likely intended to be a page of prose – that he instead turns into a free-verse poem, implying he will do the assignment, he will follow instructions (e.g. writing a page) but he will do things his own way (e.g. writing a free-verse poem, no typical structure or rhyme scheme). This shows how Hughes is retaining individuality, even as he writes about not being so inherently different from his white instructor and classmates.

Both poems, “Harlem Hopscotch” by Maya Angelou and “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes, use irony to give their message of the struggle to be an individual and conform to society all at once. For many African-Americans, conformity to society was a blow to individuality and dehumanizing, but also necessary. Beyond the structure and rhyme scheme of the poems, there is irony in the language. Maya Angelou shows this in “Harlem Hopscotch”, the poem details a child’s game, but also tackles serious issues like “the rent is due” which are not generally associated with children. The game is society – everybody plays but some have an easier time of it than others. There are different experiences due to skin color, and as shown in the last line “They think I lost. I think I won.” There is also a difference in outcome by difference of perception. Society may think they can beat her, but she will remain her own individual. The irony in the language of “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes is more blatant. Hughes mentions being different and standing out due to being colored, but spends the majority of the poem pointing out similar he is to his white instructor and peers, with lines like “I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.” Hughes stands his ground that he is not as different as others may want to believe due to his skin color, but he will retain his individuality. With lines such as “nor do I often want to be a part of you” he rejects dehumanizing conformity – just as he has likely been rejected from places and opportunities due to his skin color.

For African-Americans there was a delicate balance to be struck between individuality and conforming to society, which was often dehumanizing, but also the way to survive. This theme is seen in both “Harlem Hopscotch” by Maya Angelou and “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes. There is irony, in that many thought of them as less capable due to their skin color, when they clearly aren’t. Their experiences and struggles were different, and portrayed through both the structure and language of their poems. The simple act of writing these poems could be considered a way of rebelling against dehumanizing conformity, and expressing individual thought.

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