The following is a guest post by Caitlin Rizzo, staffer for the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress.
Last Wednesday marked what would have been the 110th birthday of beloved American poet Langston Hughes. In celebration of this milestone, the Manuscript Division and the Poetry and Literature Center co-hosted a Literary Birthday Celebration in Hughes’s honor. The event, which drew a standing room-only crowd to the Whittall Pavilion, featured DC Poet Laureate Dolores Kendrick and Rutgers University Professor Evie Shockley reading and discussing their favorite Hughes poems. The Library’s own Alice Birney ended the event by presenting a tabletop exhibit with key Hughes-related pieces available through the Manuscript Division.
Dolores Kendrick talked about the influence Hughes’s poems like “Harlem” had on Lorraine Hansbury’s A Raisin in the Sun, as well as a Yale University event featuring Hughes’s poetry and jazz that she participated in. Evie Shockley began her talk with an early poem of Hughes’s, “Johannesburg Mines,” and discussed “what the conventions of poetry preclude us from writing about.” She also praised Hughes for the way he showed how “everyday people can be the source of transformative language.” Alice Birney concluded the event by describing the range of materials she had selected, and the network of friends Hughes developed over his lifetime—among them Ralph Ellison, Carson McCullers, and Ella Winter.
The event presented a dynamic portrait of Hughes, from the postcards and headshots he sent friends to the messages of freedom and justice in his poetry. One of the most exciting aspects of the Birthday Celebrations is the way they showcase the author’s legacies of opinions and ideas, through their own in their own hand—legacies that challenge and shape the lives of countless readers.
Helping with events such as this is more than part of my job; as a girl who fell in love with poetry at a very young age (and never really stopped loving it!), spending an hour listening to a poetry reading is a great pleasure. Poetry can be an intensely personal experience—a place of solace that we return to in times of heightened emotion—but I love how readings bring the communal act of language to life.