I teach an online college English class. As a part of this course, students read Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem.” The students are then asked to answer this question: Sometimes this poem is entitled "Dream Deferred." Which title do you think is more appropriate and why?
A majority of students invariably choose the title “Dream Deferred” over the title “Harlem.” This is partly because this is an introduction to literature course and many of my students are more interested in completing the assignment to get the gen-ed credit than they are in actually thinking deeply about poetry. Within about five seconds, they see the connection between the deferred dream of the title and the similes of the poem (indeed, the first line of the poem even asks “What happens to a dream deferred?”). This strange geographical reference would take more work to parse. What was an obvious cultural reference to Hughes' contemporaries mystifies, and many students seem willing to give up on whatever isn’t immediately understandable (sigh). However, there are also a set of students who do think carefully about their answers, even googling “Harlem” to figure out the connection, and yet still end up writing something like this:
“Dream Deferred” is better because it’s more universal and can apply to everyone.
I have to admit that this answer drives me crazy (and not just for the logical conundrum of something being "more universal"). And yet, I understand why the student--even the thinking student--might write it. A poem that more people can relate to must of course be a more powerful poem. And a poem with a more general title will be a poem that more people can relate to, right?
Not exactly. I'm reminded of Emily Dickinson, who writes about poetry as “spreading wide my narrow hands.” Can’t you just see her in her white dress, alone in her room, with her arms flung wide? Her experience was narrow (like everyone’s, limited as she was to being just one person), and yet, based on her enduring popularity alone, her poetry also spreads wide. Not because she focused on the universal but because she embraced her narrow life so fully.
I want to bark this truth into my students' faces like an over-eager golden retriever, and I often have to give my own collar a good yank in order not to scare anyone. With good writing it is specificity, not generality, that creates emotion and connection. It is the very fact that something specific is happening to someone that is not you that allows you to feel most fully what you ought.
The fact is Hughes’ poem is so much more powerful because it isn’t about all deferred dreams everywhere. The power comes from experiencing Hughes' ideas and emotions, not from eclipsing them with our own. The goal in poetry and fiction isn’t to relate an experience as universal (mostly that bit is built in and doesn’t need a lot of attention) but as real. It’s not two sides of a scale--increase specificity and decrease universality. It’s more like a tree--the more effort you put in to stretching out each branch, to growing in each leaf, the more people can find shade underneath.