Part 1: Scansion and Analysis
Langston Hughes is one of the most famous American poets from the mid-1950s. He wrote many poems about slavery and the African American experience. Some of his poems also touched on music, especially jazz. ‘Trumpet Player’ combines his style of poetry, describing an African American playing jazz music in a bar. The poem explores the emotions of the jazz performer and employs literary devices such as rhyme, enjambment, and figurative language.
Reading through the poem ‘Trumpet Player’ the first thing to notice is the difference in length of the stanzas. The whole poem is made up of six stanzas, but the last two are shorter in length compared to the others. Stanzas one through four are made up of eight lines each, and the last two only have six lines. Another characteristic of this poem is enjambment, where ideas flow from one line into the next one. To show this, in the first stanza, line 6 is a continuation of line 5 “where the smoldering memory/of slave ships.” (5-6)
The poem can be said to be unstructured because there is no clear set to the number of words in each line. For example, in the last stanza, the two lines, “as the tune comes from his throat/trouble” (42-43). The word trouble makes up a line of its own while the other words are a separate line showing variation in the number of words per line. ‘Trumpet Player’ is, therefore, a free verse poem. The poem is grammatical because it follows conventions of language; all words used in the poem are to be found in everyday conversations. The punctuation in the poem is, however rather unconventional, the punctuation marks used are commas and dashes, but even these are used very sparsely. The entire poem only has three commas, found in stanzas 2, 4 and 5. There are two dashes; found in stanzas two and three. In the entire poem, there is no full stop showing a continuous flow of ideas into each other.
From first glance, it is challenging to detect the rhyme in the poem because it is not very obvious. However, as one listens or reads more keenly, there is some rhyme to be found. An example of rhyme is in lines 2, 6 and 7 in the first stanza, “With the trumpet at his lips/ of slave ships/ Blazed to the crack of whips” (2, 6, 7). The rhyme comes at the end of the lines. There is also rhyme in lines 4 and 8 in the second stanza, “tamed down/ were jet a crown” 12, 16). There is no definite pattern to the rhyme in a stanza; therefore, the reader has to be quite ardent to pick them out.
Part II: Explication
The poem is set in a bar where an African American musician is playing jazz music. The first stanza explains that the jazz player is exhausted, mainly from the memories of slavery. The evidence of his weariness is found in line 3, “Has dark moons of weariness/ Beneath his eyes.” (3-4)He recalls the slaves travelling in ships that ferried them to their masters and the severe physical suffering they had to endure, such as being whipped. Hughes refers to the jazz player as ‘the negro’. One of the notable characteristics of African Americans is their kinky hair, and the jazz musician who is the subject of the poem has his hair chemically treated to make it smooth and soft. The second stanza describes “has a head of vibrant hair/ tamed down.” (15-16) Musicians in the mid-90s favoured this type of hair over their natural afros.
Stanza three and four explain the musician’s desires and wishes. He longs for a free world devoid of slavery, for the moonlight and the sea. However, all these longings cannot be achieved; hence, the only sea for him is his glass, and the moonlight is only a spotlight in his eyes. The musician is passionate, as shown in stanza 3, “is honey/ mixed with liquid fire” 18-19). His music is both sweet and fierce, fuelled by the desires of his heart to be free. The ideas of moonlight and the sea are romanticized to show the desire for peace and serenity in a chaotic world.
The last two stanzas give us s glimpse of how the music finally takes over the jazziest and influences his emotions positively. The process is subtle such that even the jazzist himself does not realize when the music begins to calm his spirit, “does not know/ upon what riff the music slips.” (41-42) he is wearing a jacket with one button as he is on stage. The music injects him with peace, and as the scene closes, the poet explains that the troubles of the moment are gone and from the musician’s throat issues only a ‘golden note.’
In conclusion, the poem ‘Trumpet Player’ dwells on the experiences of many African Americans during and after the era of slavery. The jazz player reflects on slave ships and the whipping of slaves and longs for the sea and moonlight where peace is to be found. Finally, the music played has a calming effect on the strong desires of the player, and he is peaceful. Hughes lived in the times in which the poem is set, and the poem reflects what he and other African-Americans went through and longed for. The conclusion of the poem shows that music is a powerful tool that can calm even the most restless spirit.
Hughes, Langston. Trumpet player. CE Merrill, 1969. Retrieved from https://allpoetry.com/Trumpet-Player