Harlem wants to get a response from the listener by immediately starting off with a question, “What happens to a dream deferred?”(1). A much closer look at the careful arrangement of words reveals more focus to what this poem is all about. By putting the word “deferred” on the end of the sentence, not only does it gain more emphasis it also makes “dreams” less of the focus of the question. Rather, it is the deferment of the dream that becomes the focus. The postponement of dreams is very important subject for Hughes because in his time, black Americans were not given equal opportunities to pursue their dreams. The phrase “what happens” gives the impression that putting aside someone’s dreams always has consequences (1). This first line of the poem catches the attention of the listener and effectively sums up what the poem will be about.
The question of what happens to a deferred dream is answered by a series of questions, each painting an image that describes a process of change: 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 sugary sweet? (2-8) These answers start and end with more pleasant images of a “raisin” and “sugary sweet” (3,8). The use of this pleasant imagery and words invite the listener and make them more receptive to the idea that Hughes wants to drive: Dreams are sweet and rewarding but when they are continually held off they start to lose that sweetness and turn out into something unpleasant. They dry up and become crusty hard. This comparisons allow us to picture that dream can become just a painful reminder of how much we have not achieved or how much we have lost. And by comparing these dreams to a sore that festers and runs, Hughes drives this painful feeling even deeper into the listener (4,5). A wound becomes a perfect image to do this because one can find it in his own body. It brings the experience into a more personal level where one can see that a wound in his own skin. It allows the listener to examine his feeling about the subject. This image is different from the first and last comparisons because it gives us a feeling of disgust. The following image of a stinking rotten meat elicits another unpleasant feeling. This third imagery is different from the rest for it captures the sense of smell and allows us to realize that even though we can’t see something it doesn’t mean it’s not there. The foul smell of rotten meat is produced by unseen microbes eating the meat away. This line of the poem tells us that ignoring a dream, putting it aside and preoccupying ourselves with other pursuits is not an option because the unfulfilled dream will always be in our minds. It will linger there like the foul odor of rotting