12 of History's Most Influential Poets, From Ancient Times Until the 20th Century
12 of History’s Most Influential Poets, From Ancient Times Until the 20th Century

12 of History’s Most Influential Poets, From Ancient Times Until the 20th Century

Khalid Elhassan - September 20, 2017

12 of History’s Most Influential Poets, From Ancient Times Until the 20th Century
Langston Hughes. The Grio

Langston Hughes

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Langston Hughes – The Negro Speaks of Rivers

A poet, playwright, novelist, columnist, and social activist, Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967) was a leader of the Harlem Renaissance in New York City, and a pioneer of jazz poetry who made the African American experience the subject of his writings. His signature poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, was published in the summer after his high school graduation and attracted significant literary attention.

Born in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes’ parents separated soon after his birth and he was raised by his mother. He attended Columbia University for a year, during which he fell in love with nearby Harlem, then was bitten by a wandering bug, took a job on a freighter, and sailed around the world. During his seafaring years, Hughes visited various parts of West Africa and Europe, before jumping ship to temporarily live in Paris, followed by a stay in England, returning to America in 1924.

He worked as a busboy in a Washington, DC, hotel, where in 1925 he placed three of his poems beside the plate of America’s most famous poet of the day, Vachel Lindsay. Impressed, Lindsay publicized his discovery of a “negro busboy poet”, which garnered Hughes broader notice and helped land him a scholarship to attend Lincoln University. By the time he graduated in 1929, Hughes had published two volumes of poetry, won a prestigious literary award, wrote for major publications such as The Nation, and helped launch an influential literary magazine, Fire!

After graduation, he traveled widely to the USSR, Japan, Haiti, and elsewhere, and served as a newspaper correspondent during the Spanish Civil War. A prolific writer, he published a short story collection in 1934, wrote a Broadway play in 1935, and produced a number of plays in the late 1930s. He also founded theatrical companies in Harlem in 1937 and Los Angeles in 1939, and published the first volume of his autobiography in 1940, with a second volume coming out in 1956.

In 1961 Hughes penned Black Nativity, a play which became an international success, in which he used poetry, combined with biblical passages and gospel standards, to retell the story of Jesus’ birth. He documented African American culture and literature in a number of anthologies, such as The Poetry of the Negro in 1949, and The Book of Negro Folklore in 1958, and continued writing poetry until his death in 1967.