Theme for English B
by Langston Hughes
Section 3 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
It's not easy to know what is true for you or me
- What a statement we've got here: it's not, our speaker says, easy to know what's true. Do you agree with this statement? It fits right in with the doubtful tone of the rest of the poem, bringing us back to the original assignment, and the speaker's skepticism about its simplicity.
- Pay attention to the audience, here. The speaker uses the second person at the end of this line, with the word "you." Immediately, this might make us think of ourselves, the readers, but it's important to remember the context of this poem. The "you" here most likely refers to the speaker's instructor, who will be reading this page for sure, or perhaps even the speaker's classmates, who might listen in if he reads the assignment aloud.
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I'm what
- Here, we've got more enjambment. There's a split thought between line 16 and line 17, and another split between line 17 and line 18, so it's important to pay attention to both line breaks and punctuation.
- Let's start with the thought from line 16. Added to the statement that it's difficult to know what's true, now we've got to think of the influence of age on truth.
- Perhaps, this hints, it's harder to know what's true when you're in your twenties. You have a whole lot of your future to live out, but you've lost the certainty that sometimes comes with youth and innocence. You're kind of just figuring out who you are. (Oddly, that is a pretty mature thought to have for someone how is that young—don't you think?.)
- There's some repetition here—we already know that 22 is the speaker's own age, he told us so in line 7. But the repetition makes this poem feel as if it really were just a page written straight from the speaker's brain, with no rearrangement or artifice.
- The form of the poem suggests that same thing. We can say that it's grouped into four main "sections," but it's not something that's evenly hammered out into well-defined stanzas. For more on the form of the poem, check out "Form and Meter."
- The second part of the line keeps up the conversational feel. "But I guess" isn't a phrase you'd find in most poems. In this poem, which is supposed to show a page coming from a student's heart, it fits right in. Still, we're left guessing exactly what the speaker is trying to say he is until we get to the next line.
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
- Now we hear what the speaker guesses he is. He is what he senses. He names three senses: feeling, seeing, and hearing. Feeling is a tricky one, because that can be taken literally, to mean touch, and figuratively, to mean emotion. Seeing and hearing are more straightforward.
- He adds on to this list of three senses by saying that he feels Harlem. Note the structure of this line, with the repetition of the word "hear." This makes the line seem much more rhythmic and conversational, and turns the "I hear you" into an affirmation, not just an observation.
- Connecting this line with the rest of the poem, it seems the speaker is saying that what comes out of him, and according to the instructor, what is him, is what he sees, feels, and hears. Harlem, which fills up most of his senses at the moment, is thus a big part of who he is, and a big part of this page he's writing. So, in a way, he's saying that Harlem is "true."
- Note that this line ends in a colon. We've seen that construction earlier in the page. Colons are generally followed by a list, or a description.
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
- This line comes right after a colon. Though a colon is generally used in front of a list or a description, here, it seems to be suggesting that this line is dialogue.
- So here, we hear the speaker talking to Harlem. This line begs to be read aloud—its strength is in its rhythm. Though the "you" in this line is referring to Harlem, it gets swept up in the back and forth cadence of the line, and brings us readers in. "We" and "you" seems to include us, the audience, just as much as it refers to Harlem.
- Note that "we two" is separated by dashes. This is an interesting phrase. It brings the speaker and Harlem together with the "we," but maintains the separation with the word "two." Maybe the speaker and Harlem can join together, but they're still separate.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?
- Here, the speaker's thoughts are jumping around a little, but still related. So in addition to Harlem, he hears New York as a whole—the city, or perhaps, even the whole state! This is snuck into the line inside parentheses, which means that maybe, the speaker thought it was a little off topic. In our opinion, though, it fits in just fine.
- Harlem, and our speaker, are part of this big, bustling city. At the same, time, though (and just like in the phrasing "we two"), New York is mentioned separately. Though Harlem is in New York, it's still treated as a place that's not the same as New York. Separation remains.
- After this little parenthetical, we've got the speaker questioning who he is. He seems to be going back over line 19, and examining this tiny little pronoun "me."
- He doesn't feel quite comfortable talking about his relationship with Harlem and New York without knowing who he, himself, is.
- The structure of this line keeps up the conversational feel. The poem, with all its dashes, parentheses, and question marks, really does seem like it was written to fit the assignment in lines 2-5.