Does it dry up — rot, crust or sag?

“What happens to a dream deferred?”

I first read the poem it in seventh grade. It was a time when I was just figuring out that I liked girls, that my favorite baseball team was the Seattle Mariners, that Pokemon was the purpose of life. It was also when I was able to comprehend the 10 lines of imagery that followed:

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Virtually every line in this poem is easily conceptualized by a 12-year-old boy — except the first one.

“What happens to a dream deferred?”

I recently read an article from an associate director of admissions at Tufts. He says there are two goals to a college essay: 1) Showing how you think and 2) articulating what matters to you. Seems easy enough, but then he adds, “I’m not going to sugarcoat this: That is a really difficult task. It demands that you understand yourself in a way that perhaps no one has ever asked of you.”

Asking an 18-year-old to think about what matters to her seems unfair. But perhaps articulating it — or at least struggling to articulate it — is a good thing.

In this Langston Hughes poem, he talks about all the ways a dream deferred might look like. But he never talks about what happens when a dream is not deferred — when it doesn’t rot or sag or crust. There’s another poem he wrote called “Dreams” and it goes:

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Again, a lot about what happens to dreams in poor health, but nothing about dreams that soar with the eagles.

Here’s one called “The Dream Keeper”:

Bring me all of your dreams,
You dreamer,
Bring me all your
Heart melodies
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers
Of the world.

There is something romantic about writing about dreams, but never daring to actually prod its fragile skin with our words. There’s something humanizing about talking about our deepest desires, because it requires us to be vulnerable.

I have a strange fantasy of being able to have a conversation with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. For the longest time I thought this hypothetical conversation would be about me trying to convince him. But recently I’ve been fascinated with the idea of asking him what his dreams are — his deepest personal hopes. Because if he answers it honestly, I think I could see him as a fellow tender human and we can talk about anything.

Many of us, especially as we grow older, seem unable to say what we want to do with the single flash of consciousness we call ‘life.’ Some of our dreams seem silly, and some of our dreams seem out of reach. At some point, what we want most is to be satisfied, and the easiest way to be satisfied is to be less hungry. I don’t know if it means the dream is festering or rotting or sagging. But it certainly isn’t exploding.

So maybe it does make sense for 13-year-olds to be reading about dreams deferred. Because if a dream deferred is an dream unarticulated, then perhaps dreaming about being a Pokemon trainer gives us good practice for when it matters.

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