In Good Morning Revolution—a volume of Langston Hughes’s contributions to revolutionary magazines—there is a small poem, “Johannesburg Mines,” about a big question:
In the Johannesburg mines
There are 240,000 natives working.
What kind of poem
Would you make out of that?
240,000 natives working
In the Johannesburg mines.
The poem isn’t only a question for poets, though it is also that. It’s one-third a question for poets, two-thirds the truth for everyone, and also, because one-third of the poem operates doubly, in that the question in the middle is also a kind of answer, one-third an answer for poets and anyone else who wonders what poems can do. The poem does not sentimentalize the suffering of the colonized workers in the name of politics and likewise does not aestheticize this suffering in the name of art. It also resolutely does not forget these workers or allow them to be forgotten, nor does it forget to mark its own place in the history of the class struggle. It retains the compelling anti-style of the Communist magazines in the United States, a mode which opened itself up so generously to readers that it offered little protection for its writers (including Hughes) as they met with devastating government repression in the years to come. The poem does all of this and yet also retains an intrinsic formal genius—in short, it is loyal to poetry, in that it offers a world, and loyal to the collective material struggle for a better world, in that it has a fundamental relationship to history.
This poem is generous to the future, too, because of the portability of its form, by which I mean it is a form that can now travel from person to person and era to era, allowing for new poems to be made. As cunning as the inventor of the first sonnet, Hughes has in this poem given the world an enduring form, one with which each of us can write our own version of the poem, substituting for the first and third couplet other brutal facts of the world. Through its portability, the poem both continues as a literary form and expands as a social form, locating and re-locating itself in the revolutionary struggle as it moves with the changing shapes of history. The volta of the poem, and any of the poems that follow after it, remains intact in the poem’s possible rewritings: What kind of poem / would you make out of that? The poem turns on these lines and becomes its largest version, and as it does, it reflects the facts back as a mirror to themselves, forced into a devastating encounter. The contradiction of a world that holds both poetry and exploited labor is exposed. The poem’s question is the poem’s own answer, which is that things must not continue like this, and yet they do. Global capitalism, which produces miserable fact after miserable fact, will meet Hughes’s poem in this and its other variations for as long as its miserable arrangement of the world exists, and this poem, in Hughes’s version and all that follow, will always intercede with its unrelenting, proliferative answer.
I know someone whose job was to write code for a program that predicts population decline and extinction of various species under various sets of climate possibilities. For forty hours a week, every week, he attempted to model these future systems of death, to automate anxious imagination about the worst that could happen, and in what proportions and to whom or what. I called him an actuary of the apocalypse. His job was an attempt to teach machines a relationship to the future, to create for them the sinews and binary trees of extinction—if this bad thing, then that one, or not that—so that the machines could imagine a world more terrible, more full of sorrow and loss than this one. Even though imagining the worst was once a profoundly human activity, it is now also the work of our tools, to whom we provide a body of despair so that they might begin to make a pattern for our coming sadness.
This extinction engine does not sentimentalize or aestheticize the materials of the world. It creates portable forms: in this it has a few aspects in common with Hughes’s poem. Indeed, the program presents something that resembles fact, as the Hughes poem does, too. But what is the difference? Well, there is at least this one: in the extinction engine, what we once thought of as “nature” is reordered into extinction probabilities via code by the very materials and processes, such as my friend’s labor and the extracted fuel used to power his work machines, that are part of what created these extinction probabilities in the first place.
Hughes, on the other hand, has created a poem that might be called an anti-extinction engine. Even if all the paper and pens and books and screens disappeared tomorrow, few who seriously contemplated this poem and its startling operation would ever be able to forget their encounter with it. It is a poem that remains in memory, moves with history, inhabits struggles, transmits across languages, haunts individuals, compels the future, a poem that must always be driven to resolve the contradictions it reveals. It has life and offers life, lives through the ongoing struggle against extractivism, imperialism, and racial capitalism, and refuses in its very form to reproduce the violent world it was called to represent.
Hughes’s poem asks, “What kind of poem / Would you make out of that?” The extinction engine asks quite a different question, this one more grim. As Alice Becker-Ho once wrote: “Questions asked by machines are met with answers they themselves have devised.”
This essay appears in the Winter 2020 print issue of The Yale Review. Purchase a downloadable version of the issue at the low rate of just $5, and get writing by and conversations with Anne Boyer, Julia Cho, Samuel R. Delany, Aleshea Harris, Bhanu Kapil, Yiyun Li, Jonah Mixon-Webster, Namwali Serpell, and Maria Tumarkin.
Anne Boyer is a poet and essayist who lives in Kansas City. Her honors include the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, the Cy Twombly Award for Poetry, and a Whiting Award in nonfiction and poetry.