Coming Ashore: Langston Hughes' "The Big Sea"

Coming Ashore: Langston Hughes' "The Big Sea"

I began reading The Big Sea by Langston Hughes somewhere around my late high school years, or early college endeavors when I was still an infant of a poet.  Langston was one of the first poets I’d read, one of the first books of poetry I’d owned. I still remember walking into the Walden Books at the West Farms Mall in Connecticut where I pulled it down off the shelf, handed it to my mother. There was no conversation — the book was bought.

There is no other term than ‘giddy’ to describe how I felt when finding The Big Sea, a first person account of the lifestyle and legacy of a poet I greatly admired, who lived during a time I often obsessed over.  For some reason, picking up the book at that time was not the time meant for it to be read.  I am embarrassed to admit this, yet I am also grateful for having put it away.  It found me when it needed to find me; and I realize now that it wasn’t supposed to be any other way.  Therefore, I am not ashamed for not reading it earlier.  I absently obeyed fate.

I fell in love with Langston’s humility and shyness, an outsider looking in on the Harlem Renaissance as if he was nothing more than a passerby, a fly on the Harlem whist party walls. He bashfully explains a time when he did not know what to do with the stems of a strawberry he’d eaten at a formal dinner in New York.  His innocent uncertainty and child-like curiosity gets the better of him concerning the whereabouts of the stems of the other guests, since he was the only one left with stems which he placed to the side of his plate:

“But when I finished eating the berries and ice cream, I noticed that no one else at the table had left any stems on the plates.  Their ice cream and all was gone. I couldn’t imagine what they had done with their stems. What did one do with strawberry stems on Park Avenue?  Or were these a very special kind of strawberry stem that you could eat? Or had I committed some awful breach of etiquette by removing my strawberry stems by hand and putting them in plain view of everyone on the side of my plate? I didn’t know. I was worried and puzzled.”

When reading this and other anecdotes, I am reminded of what  E. Ethelbert Miller says so simply in his book Fathering Words which echoed in my mind throughout my reading, a mantra of mine:  A true poet is a person of the heart.  Honest and compassionate, Langston shows us that we are nothing if we are not human, explorers and wanders of our own terrain, listeners of the story-tellers we meet along the way, vulnerable — all of these, simultaneously and wholly.

Reading The Big Sea was like reading the letters of a grandfather I’d never known, but heard so many stories about.  When he felt nauseated, I held my stomach. When he slept in the haunted cabin, I turned out a light and said “Goodnight.”  Reading The Big Sea centered me again, reaffirmed for me that poetry is the whim of a moment where a sailor sits at the hull of a ship at midnight along the coast of the Congo, his drunken banter in the barracks. Poetry is raw and necessary and risky, but it is love, the last penny I am happy to give up to a stranger.

No Comments

Post A Comment