The Negro Speaks of Rivers


I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
    flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
    went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
    bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967)


I had just come back from a thing. I was tired. An afternoon of good but demanding conversation about supporting trainee teachers during their school placements, and government policy about the same. (We will not worry about these today. They are for another time.)

I decided to drive home in silence, letting my thoughts settle then leave me, the riotous Devon sunshine unspooling in green and golden flashes on hills in the distance.

I finally caved into the temptation to switch on the radio as I approached my house. A voice I had not come across before, belonging, it turns out, to Dr Cathy Fitzgerald presenting The Invisible College on Radio 4. A programme of bewitching simplicity and directness, splicing (mostly) abstract ideas together via brief and illuminating commentary and rapturous readings and performances by voices that hooked me instantly.

As I parked my car I munched on an apple and heard, in quick succession, Ted Hughes’s description of fishing from Poetry in the Making, marvelling again at his astonishing depiction of a float filling the gaze of the fisherman ‘like a lentil’; Doris Lessing commanding her unconscious, dreaming mind to provide her with the next day’s writing material each night; WB Yeats ‘bonkers’ description of his ideal ‘Poets’ Pub’. The license fee? I rest my case.

But best of all was the poem above, a recording of Langston Hughes reading ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’. The title of which I missed because I was not concentrating (I think I may have spent my whole life missing the titles of poems) or looking in my bag for my apple (once a teacher…). So I came to the poem (in all senses of the phrase) about two lines in, at ‘ancient as the world and older than the/ flow’.

I am not stupid. I knew this was no ordinary talk radio. ‘Older than the/ flow of human blood in human veins.’ I thought for a moment it might be a Psalm. Or at least someone who had grown up with them. ‘My soul has grown deep like the rivers.’ I thought of Eliot. (No.) Whitman? (Ditto.) ‘My soul has grown deep.’ By now I had stopped my ceaseless guessing and paid attention to what my body had long ago recognised, that I was in the presence of Poetry. Poetry from a place ‘before words were, living in the cave of the mouth’ (Frost), of pure rhythm and music, completely separate from and yet (now) part of my car cooling in the driveway. The race was on to remember as much of it as possible, so I could launch myself at the internet when I got indoors. Instead I sat on and, as the poem finished, reached for the off switch, the poem fast becoming a ‘muddy’ memory yet somehow fixed as well, ‘golden in the sunset.’