This essay explores the relationship between Langston Hughes’s 1930s poetry and the Soviet avant-garde theater. It argues that the constructivist theater provides an aesthetic framework through which to read Hughes’s radical poetry. Often read as an artistic failure, Hughes’s 1930s verse—especially his 1938 pamphlet A New Song—represents, I suggest, a formal response to shifting ideologies of poetic labor, namely, an effort to disentangle poetry from capitalist individualism and align it with proletarian collective labor. I argue that Hughes’s socialist poems represent an attempt to refigure poetic labor as a collective act, and I explore the implications that this has for the survival of the lyric poem and lyric modes of address. This article devotes sustained attention to a long-neglected period of Hughes’s career and provides a new reading of the Soviet avant-garde’s influence on US culture in the early twentieth century. Ultimately, it shows that these concerns and tensions are relevant to a broader arc of African American poetic history, from the twentieth century to the poetry of the present day.

You do not currently have access to this content.