Robert Hayden Essay - Hayden, Robert (Vol. 5)

Asa Bundy Sheffey

Hayden, Robert (Vol. 5)

Hayden, Robert 1913–

Hayden is a prize-winning Black American poet and anthologist.

Robert Hayden's "Middle Passage," [which this critic believes to be one of the "finest poems by Negroes," has a position] in the literature of the race war … analogous to Invisible Man among the novels and The Dutchman among the plays. The effect … is irresistible and entire, the hurt … is lasting. It inheres in part, this pain, in the very hell of their subjects, in each case so completely evoked. The effect is certified, though, by the satisfying, spherical fullness of the design, the exactness of the craft. (pp. 83-4)

[It is a long poem] in which one could scarcely change a word with any hope of increasing the rightness or the power. [It is] bloody, graphic, even documentary in [its] detailing of the horror; but so certain and controlled one can use the torment…. [Nothing] less than extensive quotation … could acknowledge the brim-full rightness, the necessary alteration of mode and effect…. Hayden, a "major" Negro poet, has written many other poems, professional and stylish: Communist and African-memory poems, war poems, Negro hero poems, poems overfilled with a sort of decadent delirious excess of hallucinatory imagery. But it all now seems, in unfair retrospect, apprentice work for "Middle Passage." (pp. 84, 86)

David Littlejohn, in his Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing By American Negroes (copyright © 1966 by David Littlejohn; reprinted by permission of Grossman Publishers), Viking, 1966.

Hayden's … surrealistic A Ballad of Remembrance is chilling with its whirling, glittering images and rhythms and its feeling of nightmare and irrationality. It captures the black experience, but filtered through the poet's sensitive subjectivity….

In Middle Passage and Runagate Runagate, Hayden incorporates all the innovations of the experimental poets of the 1920s: varied and expressive rhythms; anti-poetic materials such as quotations from handbills, legal documents, ships' logs; scraps of poetry, hymns, spirituals; fusing all these together to make two exciting narratives of the beginning and of the escape from slavery. (p. 228)

Dudley Randall, "The Black Aesthetic in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties" (copyright © 1971 by Dudley Randall; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Co., Inc.), in The Black Aesthetic, edited by Addison Gayle, Jr., Doubleday, 1971, pp. 224-34.

History has haunted Robert Hayden from the beginning of his career as a poet. In 1941,… he worked on a series of poems dealing with slavery and the Civil War called The Black Spear…. This effort was no juvenile excursion, to be forgotten in the years of maturity. Though some of the poems have not been reprinted in Selected Poems (1966), The Black Spear survives in a severely altered form in Section Five of that volume. What remains is not simply "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home" and "Frederick Douglass," but a preoccupation with a continuing historical ambition. This was the desire to record accurately the yearnings, the frustrations, and the achievement of an enslaved but undestroyed people. "Middle Passage," "The Ballad of Nat Turner," and "Runagate, Runagate," all written later, share this concern. In these poems noble Blacks, Cinquez, Nat Turner, and Harriet Tubman, rise from oppression and obscurity. (p. 96)

A generation later Hayden displays an attachment somewhat less strong to historical themes…. Though the commitment to interpreting history is still present, the emphasis has changed. The poems of The Black Spear emerge from the suffering of Black people before Emancipation and record their assertion of manhood, more than the simple ability to survive, but those in "Words in the Mourning Time" describe the agony undergone by Malcolm and others to achieve spiritual liberation in our own day and the search for meaning in history upon which that liberation depends. What has endured through the years is the central importance of history in Hayden's poetry—not history as the poet would like it to be, but history as he has discovered it. (p. 97)

[A dominant influence] was Stephen Vincent Benét, whose long historical narrative John Brown's Body (1927) moved Hayden to think of approaching slavery and the Civil War "from the black man's point of view." Indeed, Hayden has acknowledged the fact that the title of his sequence of historical poems, The Black Spear, comes from Benét. (p. 98)

[One] of the differences separating Benét's poem from his own [is] the richness of his documentation. The accurate touches that come from Hayden's wide reading are impressive … [and] display evidences of extensive research in the slave trade. (p. 100)

History, formal and folk, serves Hayden's purpose, and that purpose in the early historical poems is to describe the mystical emergence of freedom from circumstances that appall and degrade, and the making of a man, a Black man in America. (p. 106)

Charles T. Davis, "Robert Hayden's Use of History" (copyright © 1973 by Charles T. Davis), in Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1973, pp. 96-111.

Although many of his poems deal directly with the experience of being black in America …, Hayden has stressed in his public statements, that he does not want race to enter into judgments of his poetry…. He obviously does not feel he inherited a black aesthetic with the color of his skin. Today when many of the young black writers in their understandable wrath against the criminal treatment of their people seem to be saying that suffering is an exclusive property of their race and that black writing is for blacks—honky, hands off—Robert Hayden's attitude must sound suspiciously like the poetic version of integration. (p. 277)

At the core of Hayden's work is suffering, but the suffering is not limited to that caused by racial prejudice. One finds it in personal sounding poems, in poems of Negro History and contemporary violence, in those about the Mexican poor, and even in his religious poems that center on Baha'u'llah, the cult figure of the Baha'i religion that Hayden professes. But also at the core of his work is hope—tough, unsentimental hope that challenges the pain…. (pp. 278-79)

Hayden's most characteristic style is [an] explosive one …, filled with alliteration and complicated sound effects supported by a rather expansive vocabulary. At times his music and diction are reminiscent of Wallace Stevens, more often of Hart Crane, and in a few places, where the rhythms are most pronounced, of Vachel Lindsay. (p. 280)

Michael Paul Novak, "Meditative, Ironic, Richly Human: The Poetry of Robert Hayden," in The Midwest Quarterly (copyright, 1974, by The Midwest Quarterly, Kansas State College of Pittsburg), Spring, 1974, pp. 276-85.

Hayden aims at finding his own best self, using … models and traditions irrespective of race. Hayden and his critics both agree also that. Hayden wanted to be not "just" a Negro poet. Although he identified strongly with Negro life, he wanted to be free—to feel that he was free—to be any kind of poet he cared to try to be. It was important to him, in other words, that he should be as integrated as he wished. In practice, incidentally—or, really, most significantly—Hayden largely realized his own professions. Beauty of form he often achieved in his work. This beauty he compounded with a wealth of substance usually racial in its derivation, yet frequently enough not too racial to keep him from incorporating into his work practices from poets who were well thought of in the circle of the Establishment.

One can see him very well at work in such a poem as his "Middle Passage," as fine a moment, it well may be, as one could want in the treatment of a Negro theme. (pp. 76-7)

"Middle Passage" is a title which, like ["The Waste Land"], speaks both through literal allusion and a rich metaphor of millions of people and more than one historic epoch. In literal allusion "Middle Passage" refers to the idiom of the slave trade. Slave ships typically sailed a triangle, the so-called triangle of trade…. The middle leg, the voyage over water from Africa to America, in which the ship was crammed with blacks to be disposed of as if they were not human, was called the "middle passage." Literally, then, "middle passage" speaks of a horrible transition. Figuratively it obviously refers to the unfinished odyssey of a people. It is the whole "blackamerican" experience since Africa. To say the words "Middle Passage" within the context of Hayden's poem is to speak of something real and big. One need not even read the poem to begin to explore an epic theme. One can stop, as it were, with the title and still possess a poem.

Out of a richly freighted title, then, grows a richly freighted poem. (pp. 77-8)

The selection of "narrators," as Hayden uses it in "Middle Passage," not only adds to the immediacy and the special credibility of a dramatic method to the poem. It also invests the voices of the poem with a quality of objectivity. It is not as if the poem writes, or rewrites, history. It is, rather, as if it repeats history, as if it actually performs the impossible miracle of "playing back" the past…. [The] poem maintains a constant flow of suggestion and allusion: here, a turn of language, "black gold, black ivory, black seed"; there, an echo from Shakespeare, from a song in The Tempest; at one point, mere wisps of Methodist hymnody; and, near the poem's end, a resentful reference by the Spaniard of the Amistad to John Quincy Adams. Myriad voices speak, indeed, in "Middle Passage." Hayden, a careful, painstaking, deliberate workman, sensitive to the infinite possibilities for the management of form in poetry, close student of the poetic mode approved by the New Critics, and, like Tolson, an esteemed teacher as well as a dedicated poet, may be adjudged in his performance in "Middle Passage" virtually the artist whom he hopes to be in his conception of the ideal poet.

He did not always write, as in "Middle Passage," of the Negro problem. His experiment in verse that seems almost physically to dive, "The Divers," for example, has absolutely no connection with Negroes as Negroes. But he did not deliberately avoid writing about Negroes. Quite to the contrary, his fundamental impulse has always seemed, not to be not black, but … to write as the spirit moves him. If it moves him racially, well and good. If not, well and good also. (pp. 79-80)

Blyden Jackson, in Black Poetry in America: Two Essays in Historical Interpretation, by Blyden Jackson and Louis D. Rubin, Jr. (copyright © by Louisiana State University Press), Louisiana State University Press, 1974.