The subtitle of Robert Hayden’s book, “New and Selected Poems,” is a bit misleading in that this collection is composed largely of poems previously published. Of the four divisions of poems in the book, only the first, “Angle of Ascent,” is original. The others, “The Night-Blooming Cereus,” “A Ballad of Remembrance,” and “Words in the Mourning Time,” are the titles of other books already published. Nonetheless, although he is not as prolific as many writers, Hayden is a poet whose works deserve the additional exposure this publication affords. His poetry has earned for him two Hopwood Awards as well as Rosenwald, Ford Foundation, and Academy of American Poets Fellowships. In addition, A Ballad of Remembrance was awarded the Grand Prize of the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal, in 1966, and Words in Mourning Time was nominated for a National Book Award in 1972.
More than a black poet, Robert Hayden is a poet who happens to be black. Although the black heritage does make up a majority of the subject matter of his output, his voice is not a strident one, or one espousing a militant cause, taking advantage of his color; in fact, Hayden has been criticized for his refusal to play up his blackness and “politicize” in his writing. Rather, his poems dealing with the black experience gain a stronger force by their calm re-counting of the past without posturing. All readers can empathize with his descriptions of the conditions that prevailed in the past as well as his depiction of life today or his responses to natural phenomena.
Hayden’s title comes from his poem, “For a Young Artist,” which is based on a story entitled, “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings,” by Gabriel García Márques. The poem speaks of “a naked old man/ with bloodstained wings” sprawling in a pigsty. He is displayed to the public as a sort of carnival freak, raising the question among them of whether he might be an “actual angel” fallen from the sky. Finally, the old man leaps, and
He strains, an awk-ward patsy, sweating strainsleaping falling. Then—silken rustling in the air,the angle of ascentachieved.
This poem exemplifies Hayden’s opinion of the artist’s responsibility to seek transcendence in everyday life among the living. He is firmly rooted in the “pigsty” of sordid reality from which, instead of groveling, he soars on the wings of poetry. Without repudiating his ethnic background, Hayden’s writing gives evidence of a calm, gentle, and urbane wit.
Most numerous and striking in the book are the poems dealing with specific black themes. Hayden is interested in tracing his roots, both as an individual black man and as the inheritor of a black tradition in the United States. In “Beginnings,” he traces the lives of Joe Finn from the Allegheny wilderness joining the Union Army, “Greatgrandma Easter, on my father’s side,” who “was a Virginia freedman’s Indian bride,” great aunt Sally and great aunt Melisse, and Floyd Collins, “Poor game loner/ trapped in the rock/ of Crystal Cave.” The search for kinfolk is also the subject of “’Mystery Boy’ Looks for Kin in Nashville”:
And when he gets to where the voices were—Don’t cry, his dollbaby wife implores;I know where they are. don’t cry.We’ll go and find them, we’ll goAnd ask them for your name again.
The search for black identity takes the poet to the slave trade in “Middle Passage,” a powerful poem intermixing the description of the suffering of the slaves (“their moaning is a prayer for death,/ ours and their own. Some try to starve themselves./ Lost three this morning leaped...
(The entire section is 1670 words.)