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Humanities Libertexts

4.2: Considering the Writer’s Life

  • Page ID
    15875
  • Readers are often tempted to look for insight into a poem by reading about the poet. Many professors will discourage students from integrating the poet’s biographical background into a paper as evidence of the students’ interpretation of the poem. After all, look how much we gained from analyzing the poem itself. As mentioned earlier, formalism, an approach to literary criticism that came about in the 1920s and remains well-regarded by many today, holds that artwork (including literature) should be considered as an object separate from the author. Formalists feel that a text means on its own. The practice of analyzing a poem’s effects apart from the poet’s biography is an important one. If we interpret the poem with preformed ideas about the message a poet would probably want to convey, we might miss elements in the poem that are staring us right in the face. We know from our own observations of Hughes’s poem that “The Weary Blues” challenges traditional poetic forms, so we are already curious about why he might have chosen this form. However, after performing our own analysis, it can be intriguing and sometimes helpful to consider the author’s life. An African American, Hughes wrote during the Harlem Renaissance, the first large-scale African American artistic movement. Although he had read the poetry of many well-regarded British and American poets, he determined to raise the status of African American folk forms, challenging the idea that great art must follow the traditions of European forms. Adding this biographical and historical component to our study increases our understanding of the importance of Hughes’s contribution to the improvement of African American lives and his celebration of African Americans’ part in shaping U.S. culture.

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