The impetus for Speaking of Rivers came by way of an off-hand observation: "As the story goes, echoes could be heard."
The story is of a Southern black minister's rising crescendo. The echo is of a nation's most influential gospel singer.
"I started out reading the speech," recalled Martin Luther King. Jr., then "all of a sudden this thing came out of me that I have used — I'd used it many times before, that thing about 'I have a dream' — and I just felt that I wanted to use it here. I don't know why, I hadn't thought about it before the speech." Mahalia Jackson — who, moments before, had embodied the riveting humanity of the March on Washington with her version of "I Been 'Buked and I been Scorned," — called out in the midst of King's oration, "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin!" (qtd in Sundquist 14).
Following either Mahalia Jackson's prompt or his own estimations as to what would and would not work with the billowing D.C. crowd, King departed from his prepared sermon in order to improvise on a trope he had put to use numerous times in various other speaking engagements. His ability to recast himself and his speech based on the constraints of a particular audience is well documented. In his essay "The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King," James Baldwin writes:
King is a great speaker. The secret of his greatness does not lie in his voice or his presence or his manner, though it has something to do with all these; nor does it lie in his verbal range or felicity, which are not striking; nor does he have any capacity for those stunning, demagogic flights of the imagination which bring an audience sheering to its feet. The secret lies, I think, in his intimate knowledge of the people he is addressing, be they black or white, and in the forthrightnss with which he speaks of those things which hurt and baffle them. (644)
From Michael Eric Dyson, who writes that "[King's] words fairly brimmed with the pathos and poetry of black life" (2), to Eric Sundquist, who claims that "our challenge is to understand [King's] grand poetry and powerful elocution" (13); King's pliant iconography has long been shaped to figure the southern minister as poetic, if not a poet. However, when we see King's language on the page, even when lineated to emphasize its poetic leanings (see Richard Lischer's The Preacher King, 134-7), there is no crowd, no Jackson, only King. How can the page ever represent this gathering of voices?
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., built a career out of purporting a theory of African American literature that privileges a speech-based poetics, or the trope of orality. In The Signifying Monkey, he focuses on Ralph Elison's Invisible Man as a case in point for his assertion that a black text must be a "speakerly" one. But if we look at the introduction to that text, we see what Harryette Mullen would argue to be its inherent writterly quality ("African Songs and Spirit Writing"). One static statement responds to another. The dialogic mess that is call and response is lost in this and nearly every textual representation of the art-form.
In her 2007 article "Ethics and the Lyric: Form, Dialogue, Answerability," Mara Scanlon lays out two arguments on dialogic literature. First, that dialogic poetry is possible, challenging the Bakhtinian declaration that "the natural and healthy state of language, which is a changing, socially stratified, multivocal clatter of discourses, is unrepresentable in poetry;" and second, that an additional dialogue between the poet and the reader is "implored, demanded, and even enacted by the lyric's use of call-and-response traditions" (2). Both of these arguments are fused in Scanlon's close reading of Robert Hayden's poem "Night, Death, Mississippi" — and indeed, the litany of examples in which poets include demotic utterances in their poems seems as vast and limitless as poetry itself, be it overheard on the subway (Hart Crane's "The Tunnel"), in a gorilla cage (Ezra Pound's "Pisan Cantos") or from the memory of an abandoned housing project (Gwendolyn Brook's "In the Mecca"). Yet, we can say that most, if not all, of these examples fall short in sharing the space of the poem, since the demotic response to the poet's call is still under the control of the poet, and is represented in a cohesive medium that belies the eruptive capability of antiphony. The second form of dialogue, as suggested by Scanlon, addresses this limitation by treating the entire poem as a call and imparts the responsibility for response into the reader's hands. Relaxing the poem's material borders, Scanlon's argument inadvertently gestures to the internet's penchant for open-form poetics.
* * *
One must have an ear and eye, skin and tongue, to perceive the poems' publication, aural reproduction, and their effects. We see the poem, read it, hear it, feel it — is it, in the midst of these various experiences, the same? Does it change? Where is the poem? Is the entirety of the poem ever present to us in any of its manifestations?
Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (96)
It is difficult to imagine a poem more canonical than Langston Hughes' "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." Yet, following Moten's line of questioning, the precise location of the poem — whether aural, oral, textual or performative — eludes us. Going back to its initial publication in The Crisis (1921), Speaking of Rivers traces the material transformations of Hughes' poem, from its initial two-column, dialogic layout to its familiar set of stanzas anthologized today. While this task invites historicized re-readings of the poem's content — readings elided by dematerialized approaches to poetry-qua-text — it also importantly underscores how formal constraints both invite and foreclose these interpretive possibilities, forcing us to rethink the "container" metaphor of form/content that, despite recent challenges, continues to dominate critical approaches to poetry.
In an attempt to take seriously the theoretical implications of its own materialist methodologies, this project uses form to explore Hughes' poetic content by recasting "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" once again as a web-based digital project. This digital re-reading — operating as both a detourned archive and an artistic re-imagining — puts the many editions of Hughes' poem in direct contact with a constellation of images, texts and voices that respond to its call. As well, Speaking of Rivers explores how this practice-based, performative approach makes creative claims on Robert Stepto's literary theory of call-and-response. The goal then is to (re-)read poetic form not as a container for textual content, but as a materially-instantiated palimpsest that, through the act of interpretation, becomes a potential site for improvisational intervention.
— Jonathan Peter Moore, Whitney Anne Trettien
Baldwin, James. "The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King," The Portable Sixties Reader. Ed Ann Charters. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
Dyson, Michael Eric. I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Free Press, 2000.
Lischer, Richard. The Preacher King. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Moten, Fred. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
Scanlon, Mara "Ethics and the Lyric: Form, Dialogue, Answerability." College Literature 34.1 (2007): 1-22.
Sundquist, Eric. King's Dream. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.