Poem #39: Jazzonia by Langston Hughes

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

Title: Jazzonia

Langston Hughes

Source:  African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.


Oh, silver tree!
Oh, shining rivers of the soul!

In a Harlem cabaret
Six long-headed jazzers play.
A dancing girl whose eyes are bold
Lifts high a dress of silken gold.

Oh, singing tree!
Oh, shining rivers of the soul!

Were Eve's eyes
In the first garden
Just a bit too bold?
Was Cleopatra gorgeous
In a gown of gold?

Oh, shining tree!
Oh, silver rivers of the soul!

In a whirling cabaret
Six long-headed jazzers play.


Like poems, I had to sit with and reread this a few times.  I had to think about the title and the lines and the mind and space that created it.  It's the fun and challenge of this project to see what I can understand and speculate about poetry.  

Written by Hughes in the 1920s as the Harlem Reinaissance is thriving and jazz is thriving, it's a poem that both highlights the magic of these times while also harkening back to older times. The first stanza feels like a declaration but I wonder about what is the silver tree that is spoken of.  Is it the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or a metaphor of the jazz club setting where so much shining and reflective steel reflects from the stage?  It might also hint at Egypt with the delta as its shining silver tree and the Nile as the river of soul. The poem's mixture of Eden and Egypt hint at these possibilities.  All of this is made more fascinating by the title, "Jazzonia"--connecting a cabaret in Harlem to some older civilization (e.g. like Mesapotamia) and contrasting the last 2 stanzas and being interconnected.  It's as if the "whirling cabaret" is shining tree and the silver rivers of soul are the six long-headed jazz players, feeding that shining tree.

That they are in a cabaret also harkens in some ways to Eden--a place where clothing is option and there is some kind of magic in the air.  The "six long-headed jazzers" make me wonder if they serve different symbols such as angels playing or the six days of work preceded by the Sabath.  The woman or "dancing girl" is initially framed in questionable ways as being bold and lifting her dress but in some ways is vindicated in the forth stanza as she is compared with Eve and Cleopatra (or rather that's how I take it, I think others might frame them both as women misbehaving and I think of them as strong women).  

Those are my thoughts.  What did you find interesting about the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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