“Double Elegy” conflates the lives of two poets whom Michael S. Harper includes in his rendering of artistic kinship by linking them across geographical and racial boundaries. Both Hayden (black) and Wright (white) are characterized as emblems of personal persistence and poetic accomplishment, each struggling to overcome social, economic, cultural, and racial challenges in the pursuit of his artistic passions.
In stanza 1, Harper shows Hayden and Wright traveling on different paths, “city or country roads,” but sharing the experiences of uphill struggles: “the dark invisible elements cling to your skin.” Celebrating each poet’s ability to use life’s obstacles as seeds for writing rather than reasons for failure, “you do not cry/ and you do not scratch,” Harper’s elegy points to the potential of suffering as a source of triumph. By using images of the Ohio and Detroit Rivers, bodies of water that connect across history and distance, Harper asserts both individual and collective identities for the poets and stresses the shared realities of all Americans. Like the rivers, Harper’s second and third stanzas meander along a series of allusions to popular culture, historical landmarks, and memorable performances; Harper traces the emergence of luxurious cultural icons—“the Paradise Theatre,” “the Radisson Hotel,” and “the twentieth century Limited”—alongside poignant personal memories of more modest (and sobering) images from everyday life and culture—“Uncle Henry,” freight trains used to transport men into war, and sporting events in the South.
Harper’s sadness over the loss of Hayden and Wright culminates in the final stanza, in which he connects the poets to other inspiring figures born of oppression, “Leadbelly” and “Little Crow,” and acknowledges the unpleasant but enlightening truths of physical death. Facing his own pain at having to say “goodbye” to Hayden, a very close friend, and Wright, a member of his treasured poetic lineage, Harper uses language to transcend time, space, and mortal death in “Double Elegy” in order to pay tribute to artistry born of difficulty and to explore the promising potential of his own.