Literary critics in the U.S. have generally considered the artistic merit of Langston Hughes's so-called radical poetic production of the 1930s to be far below the standard the poet set in the previous decade. Its detractors (as well as its precious few champions) tend to distinguish it from Hughes's 1920s poetry, associating the latter with a black nationalist literary aesthetic linked to an embrace of Pan-Africanism and the former with a proletarian poetic tied to a decidedly Marxist analysis of race and class-conflict. This article offers a counter-narrative to these reigning critical discourses by focusing on an instance where Hughes mined his experience as a translator to offer an ethical, albeit pessimistic, vision of black internationalism infused with a Marxist outlook and conveyed through poetic innovations of hybrid ethno-linguistic origin. Specifically, I argue that when Langston Hughes translated Vladimir Mayakovsky's “Blek end uait” (“Black and White”) and “Sifilis” (“Syphilis”) during his Moscow residence in the winter of 1932–33, a resulting epiphany motivated Hughes to strive to reconcile his Pan-Africanist views with his newly aroused vision of class struggle. The essay's first half demonstrates that Hughes's engagement with Mayakovsky left a trail of historical and literary evidence that reveals how Mayakovsky's poetics had a profound impact on Hughes's own political outlook and poetic palette. Nowhere is this influence more clear than in Hughes's poem “Cubes” (1934), a reading of which forms the second part of this essay. “Cubes” exhibits poetic innovations provoked by his engagement with Mayakovskian poetics — particularly with Mayakovsky's notion that revolutionary poetry succeeded best when it both invoked and transgressed the rules governing “antiquarian” poetry in a dialectical process that he labeled as “coup.” The article examines how Hughes's “Cubes” creatively echoes, reworks, and critiques Mayakovsky's portrayal of international race relations to ethically address the paradoxes, potentials, and problematic limitations of Pan-Africanist and Soviet internationalist collectivities while simultaneously staging two poetic coups that play with and against avant-garde and agitprop poetic conventions to draw into focus the uneasy relationship between empire, aesthetics, and racial politics. The literary mastery manifest in this endeavor displays the often-overlooked aesthetic sophistication of Hughes radical poetry. “Cubes” offers a nuanced vision of black internationalism and demonstrates the role that translation played in Hughes's overall creative process.
Research Article|June 01 2014