Robert Hayden Essay - Hayden, Robert (Vol. 9)

Asa Bundy Sheffey

Hayden, Robert (Vol. 9)

Hayden, Robert 1913–

Hayden, an award-winning American poet, deals with the black experience in America. His poems revolve around concepts of suffering, and his use of alliteration and complex sound structure has often resulted in comparisons between his work and that of Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane. (See also CLC, Vol. 5.)

Hayden has always been a symbolist poet struggling with historical fact, his rigorous portraits of people and places providing the synaptic leap into the interior landscape of the soul, where prayer for illumination and perfection are focused on the oneness of mankind. Having committed himself to the improvement of language, he has sometimes been falsely accused of timidity of commitment to the black struggle because of his refusal to "politicize" his work for expedient and transient goals. But it is Hayden's poetry that best captures the Afro-American tradition of the black hero…. Hayden is the master conversationalist and handler of idiom; his perfect pitch is always pointed toward heroic action and his central images are almost always an embracing of kin. He has never abandoned his people….

Though Hayden has not written about his mother directly, it is her voice [in "Angle of Ascent"] that informs his love of detail and spice; he alludes to her passing in "Approximations" ("In dead of winter/wept beside your open grave./Falling snow."), an approximate haiku fused with his own experience. He has been critical of his own slow pace in turning out poems, of what he has summarized as "slim offerings over four decades." But his own assessments should include the teachableness of this volume to an increasing public audience…. Hayden is the poet of perfect pitch…. (p. 34)

His experiments with the ballad form have produced singular achievements—ballads in spirit in the language, with dramatic tension and economy that adapt to his personal view of history…. Hayden's "The Ballad of Nat Turner," written before the Turner controversy of the late sixties, demonstrates how he does this, dwelling on the high points of the mysterious and archaic roots of black folk rhythms.

His search for kinfolk is the permanent condition of his poetry and his personality….

"Angle of Ascent" is a book that is told. The title comes from the poem "For a Young Artist," which grew out of a conversation with a young musician set upon "astral projection," the attempt to live and create on the highest spiritual plane. Hayden's answer is to find transcendence living among the living. In "Stars" Sojourner Truth "Comes walking barefoot/out of slavery/ancestress/childless mother/following the stars/her mind a star," giving testimony to Hayden's living "angle of ascent/achieved." (p. 35)

Michael S. Harper, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 22, 1976.

Hayden's poetry [has] been ghettoized along with the work of the other "Black poets." For proof that this situation remains true, one need merely look to the magazines that have so far reviewed Angle of Ascent and notice that most, if not all of them, have felt that the book had to be reviewed by another black.

But Robert Hayden has always wished to be judged as a poet among poets, not one to whom special rules of criticism ought to be applied in order to make his work acceptable in more than a sociological sense. His stance … has been well known for a long time both to militant blacks and to "liberal" whites. Thus, if the latter have relegated Hayden to the literary ghetto along with the other Black poets, the former have seen him, if not as an "Uncle Tom," at least as a reluctant resident. Perhaps this situation will best explain why Hayden has been ignored.

Yet Hayden has written as much out of his ethnic background as has anyone else…. [He] is a paradigmatic poet of the English language who has been true to his roots and history, though not circumscribed by, or limited to, what is merely racial, ethnic, or personal. (p. 200)

Used in the proper circumstances, [understatement, or litotes, a] universal technique, can be one of the most effective in the poet's toolbox. Robert Hayden has written one of the most touching contemporary poems utilizing litotes, "Those Winter Sundays," one of his best-known poems also…. (p. 207)

[In discussing "black technique in poetry," in his introduction to Understanding the New Black Poetry, Stephen] Henderson defines his neologism "mascon": "a massive concentration of Black experiential energy."… But it is not the techniques that make [Hayden's poems] Black—it is how the techniques are applied. There is "mascon" in the poems, but the "massive concentration of Black experiential energy" is a function of style, not [of what Henderson calls Black poetic] structure. (p. 209)

Hayden is usually not content merely to be influenced by a form, he transforms it into something uniquely his. Though "The Ballad of Nat Turner," for instance, looks typographically like a traditional ballad, and might even fool the casual reader into thinking that it is one, in fact it does not rhyme as most ballads do, it consonates; and, though repetition is sometimes used as a substitute for rhyme, there is no ballad refrain. Some stanzas do not even consonate or have repetition, yet the whole poem has the effect of a unified narrative song. This is a masterful wedding of tradition with personal style. (p. 212)

No poet I know of is so capable of couching the American Black's experience and situation, emotion and ambience in language that is accessible to everyone….

[Hayden builds a context for "cue-words"] which provides the alien reader with points of reference which will allow him to understand some of the overtones with which the cues are laden. Hayden does … [this] in poem after poem—he cares about the reader, whoever he may be…. (p. 216)

One of Hayden's finest poems is full of 19th-century Negro southern dialect: "The Dream" alternates narration regarding a character named Sinda with Black letters from the Civil War front. It is the most effective dialect poem I have ever read, though Hayden claims that many people have misinterpreted it. This puzzles me, and the only reason I can think of for it is that the unexpected person dies. (p. 217)

There are wisdom, art, and the science of language in the poetry of Robert Hayden. His work is unfettered in many ways, not the least of which is in the range of technique available to him. It gives his imagination wings, allows him to travel throughout human nature. Yet he is in no way untrue to his personal heritage, nor to the heritage of American blacks. His style is Protean, capable of change and growth as he develops from book to book, poem to poem. If his work has been overlooked in the past, it has been for the smallest of reasons; it is because he has been willing to be neither a propagandist nor a dweller in a literary ghetto. He has preferred to be a poet. (p. 219)

Lewis Turco, "'Angle of Ascent': The Poetry of Robert Hayden," in The Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1977), Spring, 1977, pp. 199-219.