Explication of Theme for English B
Explication of “Theme for English B”
Langston Hughes’s poem, “Theme for English B,” dramatizes the conflict between structure and identity. Hughes’s poem begins with the professor’s instructions to write a page that comes from within, and the speaker continues by giving a quick summary of his background and the setting of where the page is being written. The speaker is a twenty-two year old “colored student” (line 10) writing the assignment in his room near school. The second and final section of the poem discusses the subjectivity of one’s personal truths and concludes by stating that this analysis actually is the paper. Is what is true for the speaker the same as what is true for the instructor? Initially the reader recognizes the validity and importance of this question presented by the speaker, for as a college student he presumably is intelligent. More so, as the only colored student in his class, he has experienced dealing with the ideas of people different from himself.
The first argument of “Theme for English B” focuses on structure and is represented by the formalities of the education system and hierarchy found in instructor-student relationship. The formal structure is established immediately with the instructor’s directions. Unlike the free verse that dominates the structure of the poem, the assignment’s directions are given in a very composed manner in which both perfect and end rhyme are used:
Go home and write
A page tonight
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true. (lines 2-5)
Write and tonight are exactly alike in sound (perfect rhyme) and come at the end of the lines (end rhyme.) These two rhyming techniques are similarly used in the next two lines with you and true. The use of a stanza also defines the structure applied by the instructor in his directions. This stanza is contrasted by the unorganized stream of conscious approach used by the speaker in the rest of the poem.
Aside from the conclusion, the rest of the poem is organized very informally. The speaker’s page resists the structure desired by the instructor. Small writing techniques are dispersed randomly throughout the poem to add to its haphazard nature. For example, enjambment is present between the lines, “But I guess I’m what / I feel and see and hear…” (lines 17-18.) The break of the sentence by the lines keeps the speaker‘s ideas unstructured and free flowing. Other lines like, “…Harlem, I hear you: / hear you, hear me — we two — you, me…” (lines 18-19) utilize both cacophony and caesura. The cacophonous lines are unpleasant to the ear and effectively slow the reader down to emphasize the speaker’s radically different approach to writing than the instructor’s. The caesuras, or breaks in the middle of the line, further slow the reader and contrast with the quick and flowing lines of the instructor.
The conclusion of the poem conforms to structure apparent in the professor’s instructions, but maintains its differences too. Primarily, the rhyme scheme is ABCB as opposed to the instructor’s AABB. This idea of similarity with differences is perfect reflection of the speaker’s own thoughts, “You are white— / but a part of me, as I am a part of you. / That’s American” (lines 31-33.) Whether they like it or not, they are separated by their differences but more importantly united by their similarities. The conclusion also challenges the structure of education, “As I learn from you, / I guess you learn from me—” (lines 37-38.) These lines specifically oppose the structure found in the classroom and hierarchical relationship between instructor and student.
The second argument of Langston Hughes’s poem is that of identity. The problems associated with identity first arise from the instructor’s directions and force the speaker to ask himself if what is true for the speaker is also true for the instructor. The speaker begins by describing his age, race, birthplace, and education (lines 7-10). Here his identity is established, and it is clear that the instructor is of different race, and probably of different age, birthplace, and educational background than the speaker.
The next section of the poem is the speaker’s analysis of his identity and furthermore the identity of his paper. The speaker’s identity is succinctly questioned in line 20, “Me— who?” The break provided by the caesura allows the reader to pause and contemplate this question as the speaker does, emphasizing its importance. Eventually the speaker decides that his interests do not define him, as they do not separate him from other people with similar interests. When the speaker challenges the identity of his paper, he uses a metaphor, “So will my page be colored that I write?” (line 27.) The physical attributes of the page are not being questioned, but the speaker is asking if his page will be biased. The speaker concludes that yes the paper will be biased, but most importantly the instructor will still be able to identify with it. Even though the two come from different backgrounds and may or may not have similar interests, they are both American. The speaker is now able to conclude his page and understand that they are both a part of each other, and identity is stronger than structure. The importance of the line: “As I learn from you, / I guess you learn from me—” (lines 37-38) is once again apparent. Their identity as Americans binds them together much stronger than their status in the structure of education tears them apart. In other words, their similarities with regards to identity are much more significant than their differences with regards to structure.
The poem’s final comment on the conflict between structure and identity is that identity is more important than structure. While initially the reader is aware of the question, after careful analysis, the reader knows the answer too. “It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me” (line 16.) However what is true for both of them is that they are American, are a part of one another, and can both learn from each other. Overall, these similarities outweigh the differences created by structure (cultural differences created by society, educational differences created by the schooling system, etc.)