The Harlem Renaissance Poetry Project

An Analytical and Linguistic Examination of Poetry Written by Harlem Renaissance Poets

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The Harlem Renaissance Poetry Project's goal was to analyze two key elements of poetry written during the Harlem Renaissance time period: a time in American history where African American culture thrived and grew in new and outspoken ways.

Figurative Language Analysis

Figurative language is significant in poetry because it is, in many ways, a comment from the poet on how the world works; it's the poet's interpretation on how things relate to each other. Metaphors and similes tell the reader a lot about the writer's feeling towards a topic or how the poet views a certain object or event; comparing something to a different object with a negative value or meaning implies that the poet things negatively of the first object, too, and vice versa. The poet, however, doesn't actually have to say this if he or she uses figurative language. Poets can let their readers make that determination on their own, and that's what makes reading poetry so interesting -- the interpretation.

This project analyzed figurative language usage among the most famous poems by each of the Harlem Renaissance poets in our poetry collection. We looked at:

We counted the number of times each poet used these forms of figurative language in each poet's poem collection and converted them into the percentages depicted on the graphs below.

Personification Use Among Harlem Renaissance Poets McKay Hughes Spencer Johnson Bontemps Newsome Popel 25% 50% 75% 100% 67% 17% 50% 53% 78% 27% 67%

Personification is when an inanimate object is given human characteristics or abilities. Writers often use personification to give abilities to objects that they can't do but desperately need to do. It's a way to bring writing to life and actively engage the reader. Personification allows a writer to explain how he or she views the world -- how he or she wishes the world worked.

The Harlem Renaissance poets collectively used high percentages of personification, which is to be expected. The Harlem Renaissance was a period in American history where African American culture exploded after being muted, ignored, and snuffed out for centuries. The world was oppressive and negative towards African Americans, especially towards blacks entering professional fields. It makes sense that black poets during this time of cultural revolution in the African American community would use a lot of personification; the world was working against them, and they had wishes and dreams of it being different. Their use of personification is their way of explaining to the world how they wanted everything to work -- how the world should be.

Metaphor Use Among Harlem Renaissance Poets McKay Hughes Spencer Johnson Bontemps Newsome Popel 25% 50% 75% 100% 8% 33% 44% 24% 6% 18% 22%

According to Webster's dictionary, a metaphor is a figure of speech that applies one objects meaning or significance is applied to another object with a generally different meaning.

The graph above shows the percentage that each poet's metaphor use makes up out of the total use figurative language. Many time, because a metaphor is a direct comparison, a definite connection that the writer is making, metaphors are considered a writer's explanation of his or her own reality -- that is, a description of what how the writer sees the world, what he or she thinks is true and real.

With that in mind, this graph says a lot about Harlem Renaissance poets. The percentages are not very high; none of them exceed 50%. This could imply that the Harlem Renaissance poets do not like to put figurative judgements on reality into their work.

Langston Hughes seems to be more emotional and personal than the others, as his percentage is noticeably the highest of all seven poets.

Simile Use Among Harlem Renaissance Poets McKay Hughes Spencer Johnson Bontemps Newsome Popel 25% 50% 75% 100% 25% 50% 6% 22% 17% 55% 11%

Similes compare two unlike things. In literature, writers commonly use similes to give information about an unfamiliar object to a reader by comparing it to an object that the reader is familiar with; this, in turn, makes the writing more visual and image-driven.

5 out of the 7 poets we studied used small percentages of similes compared to the other types of figurative language that we analyzed, and this shows that Harlem Renaissance poets have a tendency to avoid relying on the reader to create an image himself or herself. Instead, Harlem Renaissance poets prefer to describe the image they are exlaining themselves, creating a more raw image rather than a creative one.

Langston Hughes and Effie Lee Newsome, however, both show significantly higher percentages of simile use -- both over 50%. These poets aim for a simpler image in their poems, one that readers can easily understand. This may be connected to the high illiteracy rates among African Americans during the 1920s. Simplifying poetry, making it easier to read and understand, would mean that more people could read, understand, and enjoy it. These two poets had this in mind as they published their work.

Figurative Language Use Among Harlem Renaissance Poets McKay Hughes Spencer Johnson Bontemps Newsome Popel 25% 50% 75% 100%

The graph above shows the overall division of each poet's figurative language use. The colors correspond with the individual graphs shown previously.

McKay, Popel, Bontemps, and Johnson all demonstrate a low usage of metaphors and similes, preferring personification.

Spencer is a slight outlier, showing a tendency to use metaphors more so than the other six poets.

Hughes and Newsome demonstrate a higher use of similes and metaphors compared to the other five poets.

Puncuation Analysis

Puncutation often tells the reader how the poem is meant to be read -- at what pace, with what emphasis, with what emotion. This makes puncuation a significant factor in Harlem Renaissance poetry, and we analyze it below. This project analyzed punctuation usage among the most famous poems by each of the poets in our poetry collection. We looked at:

We counted the number of times each was used, and found that commas, periods, semicolons, and exclamation points showed the most interesting numbers. We converted those numbers to percenages, depicted in the graphs below.

Comma Use Among Harlem Renaissance Poets McKay Hughes Spencer Johnson Bontemps Newsome Popel 25% 50% 75% 100% 59% 38% 62% 54% 32% 44% 54%

Commas control the pace that the poem is read by giving the reader a visual point at which to pause. Often, writers will use sentence structures that rely heavily on commas if they want the reader to pause frequently, giving them an opportunity to reflect on what he or she has just read. A lot of comma usage could imply that the poem's topic or theme is important to the poet, and he or she wants the reader to pay special attention to it.

As shown in the graph above, all seven of the Harlem Renassiance poets use significant percentages of commas in their poems. Hughes and Bontemps use a smaller number of commas than the others, but these numbers are still decent percentages. This means that the Harlem Renaissance poets cared deeply about the content of their poems and wanted the reader to pay special attention to what they were saying by reading the poems slowly and deliberately.

Period Use Among Harlem Renaissance Poets McKay Hughes Spencer Johnson Bontemps Newsome Popel 25% 50% 75% 100% 17% 37% 14% 18% 49% 17% 1%

Periods end a sentence definitively, authoritatively. A period at the end of a sentence is final. It tells the reader to pause, but it also tells him or her that the previous thought is complete and the next sentence is a new idea; it prepares the reader to move forward in the poem and gives them closure at the same time.

Most of the poets use a generally smaller percentage of periods compared to commas, which implies that the poets are using more complicated syntax and are frequently interweaving thoughts and ideas in the same sentence rather than ending a thought and beginning fresh. Hughes and Bontemps, two poets who used less commas than the others, show a higher percentage of periods than the others, which makes sense. These two poets are explaining one idea per sentence with simpler syntax rather than a longer string of thoughts bound together.

Note the extremely low percentage that Popel uses, as it will be important in the next graph.

Exclamation Point Use Among Harlem Renaissance Poets McKay Hughes Spencer Johnson Bontemps Newsome Popel 25% 50% 75% 100% 8% 9% 3% 4% 1% 19% 20%

Exclamation points denote excitement and happiness, but they can also denote intensity and anger. The difference depends on the context of the sentence.

The majority of Harlem Renaissance poets tend to avoid using exclamation points, which could mean that they prefer to express their emotions towards the topics that they write about in other ways, such as figurative language.

Take special note of Newsome and Popel's percentages, especially compared to the percentages of periods shown above. These two poets are ending their sentences more often with an exclamation point rather than a period. They leave their emotions at the end of their sentences in a way that the other five poets do not.

Semicolon Use Among Harlem Renaissance Poets McKay Hughes Spencer Johnson Bontemps Newsome Popel 25% 50% 75% 100% 9% 0% 15% 10% 3% 4% 9%

Semicolons represent a place where the author could have ended the sentence and started fresh but chose not to. They imply that two sentences are directly related to each other or close in meaning.

It is not surprising that the percentages shown above are all generally low. These poets demonstrated a medium-to-high percentage of period usage, as explained above, and sentences that end with a period cannot typically include a semicolon, outside of a list. This graph supports the findings that the graph showing each poet's period usage provided.


The Harlem Renaissance poets use high percentages of personification compared to metaphors or similes, which means that they want to give themselves a voice in their poetry -- a voice that they never had until this time period. They want to explain how they think the world should work -- how they'd like it to, how they wish it did.

The poets also demonstrate a tendency towards commas in their writing, implying that they use more complex syntax. It also means that they see a high value in their work and in the topics and themes that they are depicting, and they want their readers to understand this significance and take a special note of what they are saying with their poems -- what judgements they are making with their figurative language, for example.

Langston Hughes and Esther Popel are the two poets out of the seven that we studied who showed the most deviation from the group, Hughes with his simile use and Popel with her exclamation point use. These poets see different value in their writing than the others do -- they wanted their readers to take away their messages differently than the others.

The Future of the Harlem Renaissance Poetry Project

While the Harlem Renaissance Poetry Project's analysis of these seven poets is complete at this time, there are many more poets from the Harlem Renaissance time period who could be added to the poetry collection.

There are other significant elements in poetry that could be worth studying, as well:

While these topics are both interesting and significant in studying the Harlem Renaissance time period, they were outside the scope of possibility for this project at the time that it was completed, as the Harlem Renaissance Poetry Project team completed this project during a semester at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg for the Digital Humanities course.