When a colleague asked me a few years ago for an example of a poem that works as an implicit argument, my mind went directly to Langston Hughes‘s “Theme for English B”. It’s not that Hughes‘s poem makes a case for a position, exactly, as that it replicates what writers go through when they are doing “invention” for an argument: trying to think through their ideas in response to a “rhetorical situation”: here, the very familiar rhetorical situation of being given an assignment by an English teacher.
Does “Theme for English B” do too much “meaning” and not enough “being”? I don’t think so. Note the instructions for this writing assignment: “let that page come out of you – / Then, it will be true.” The speaker’s writing teacher is an “expressivist.” He (probably literally “he,” in the 1920s) wants the students just to write. But the student, “the only colored student in my class,” doesn’t find it that easy. The speaker has to consider every aspect of his social situation – age, race, region, nation – before he can start to write his “page.” At the end of the page, he has done almost nothing but account for his “diverse” identities.
“Theme for English B” addresses the question I raised near the start of this semester, one of universals. Can the same supposedly universal writing assignment really be the same for everyone who hears it? Or does the question of difference in identity enter everything we do? “That’s American,” the poem’s speaker asserts. Is it?
Don’t, by the way, equate the speaker of the poem with Langston Hughes. Hughes indeed attended Columbia University, which is the setting of the poem, and was one of the few black students there. But he was born in Missouri, far from Winston-Salem, and grew up in the Midwest, not in the South. The speaker shares some of Hughes’s experiences, but he’s forged also from Hughes’s imagination.
This poem is freer in form than any we’ve looked at so far. It doesn’t rhyme, and the lines are of different lengths and rhythms. The speaker seems to write it as simply and directly as possible, as if replicating what a 22-year-old college student might actually write. But as with Frost’s poetry, there is a great deal of craft in seeming as simple and direct as possible. A real student might try to sound more academic or intellectual, or perhaps more vernacular. Not many college students can look so directly at themselves and be so open! I sense in this poem a sort of looking back and doing what one might have done, in one’s youth: a saying what one should have said at the time.