Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Analysis of "Brass Spittoons" by Langston Hughes

Original poem reprinted online here: "Brass Spittoons" by Langston Hughes
Originally read: November 18, 2014
More information about the Poet: Langston Hughes



Boy as a derogatory.  The first thing past me mentioned with this poem is how many times "boy" is used in the poem.  And naive past me states "advice" list.  No.  Probably not after rereading this poem again.

     Clean the spittoons, boy
     Detroit,
     Chicago,
     Atlantic City,
     Palm Beach.

With the very beginning of the poem, note how the list of places are specific, but boy is general.  So there's a prophetic tone coming from the speaker addressing all these different "boys" and then calling out the actions the boys should do:

     Clean the spittoons.
     The steam in hotel kitchens
     And the smoke in hotel lobbies.
     And the slime in hotel spittoons,

But the big turn comes with the admission of the speaker, "part of my life". The only does the speaker reinforce the sense of the prophetic and be relatable by admitting the "boy" struggles is also his own.  And so with the sequence of "A nickel. / A dime. / A dollar" in which the money accumulates only to be spent on:

     Buy shoes for the baby.
     House rent to pay.
     Gin on Saturday,
     Church on Sunday.

Note the responsibilities that have to be addressed which is emphasized by the hard rhyme of "-ay" -- predictable, consistent, there.  These are the responsibilities of both the "boy" and the speaker.

Then the poem goes toward a more religious turn going off on the "church on sunday" idea with:

     A bright bowl of brass is beautiful to the Lord
     Bright polished brass like the cymbals
     Of King David's dancers,
     Like the wine cups of Solomon


Here is the transition of "worldly" brass (spittoons and hotel lobbies) versus the divine (bright to the lord, dancers, Solomon) -- the prophetic turns towards the divine as an escape

     A clean spittoon on the alter of the Lord.
     A clean bright spittoon all newly polished--
     At least I can offer that.
     Com'mere, boy!

So the question is why end with "Com'mere, boy!"  instead of the more uplifting, "At least I can offer that."  The big question here is who is the "man" and who is the "boy."  Although unstated, the move to the prophetic and self-awareness shows a move towards something -- the leader of the "boys" who can bring insight.

The last line seems to me of one of a man who takes the form of those who call the other's boy.  The speaker wants to be in that spot above and more "mature" and through this poem he does, he does "offer," at no cost and no question.

No comments:

Post a Comment