Poetry Review: “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes

Langston_HughesI first read Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in 1981 when I was living in Chicago. It was part of a volume of Hughes’s poetry that I bought in a used bookstore that was just north of the Loop near an Irish bar that I used to frequent. In my mind now they were right across the street from one another, the bar and the bookstore… but I suspect that time has minimized distances. They may very well have been blocks apart.

It was a place I went to often to spend the afternoon with coffee or Guinness depending on my mood. I usually sat in a booth off the bar and read, most often Yeats or theology. The day I bought the Hughes volume and started reading it the bartender asked what I was reading. He often asked about the books I was reading. I told him Langston Hughes.

“He isn’t Irish,” he said. “But I like the poem about rivers.”

I remember finding the poem in the table of contents and reading it. Later that evening when I was going to meet some friends, I remember walking along the river with the words of the poem stuck in my head. It has always been one of my favorites

In a week when there has been much talk about the use of another word that starts with the letter nin a famous book about a river, Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” has come to my mind many times.

Read the poem once or twice yourself. Then listen to a clip of Hughes reading this poem: click here.


The Negro Speaks of Rivers

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.

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