Hayden, Robert 1913–1980
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 elicited comparisons between his work and that of Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)
Hayden is a poet of many voices, using varieties of ironic black folk speech, and a spare, ebullient poetic diction, to grip and chill his readers. He draws characters of stark vividness as he transmutes cardinal points and commonplaces of history into dramatic action and symbol.
The slender, potent American Journal is well named. For here we peruse, at close range, portions of America's visible (public, documented) and—to use Octavio Paz's term—"invisible history." We ascend "The Point" at Stonington, Connecticut, and in the brilliant air, alive with wild swans and terns, we salute the revolutionaries who repelled the British there: "we are for an instant held in shining / like memories in the mind of God."
The Afro-American past is of special concern here. In "A Letter From Phillis Wheatley," Hayden uses understatement to reveal what historians have recently discovered: that Phillis, the 18th-century slave poet, viewed slavery and prejudice with horror, wonder, and well-guarded humor….
The title poem is a tour de force framed as the jottings of an otherworldly visitor reporting on the American people during the bicentennial. The visitor, in earthling disguise, finds Americans noisy, vain, wasteful, and cruel worshippers of machines; yet the "charming savages enlightened primitives brash / new comers lately sprung up in our galaxy" are attractively vigorous and ingenious. (p. G6)
The most compelling section of this book is the sequence of poems ironically called "Elegies For Paradise Valley," (named for a tough Detroit neighborhood of yesteryear), a place vividly recalled from the poet's boyhood, and captured in terse, sometimes gritty language…. (pp. G6-G7)
American Journal, by Hayden the "poet of perfect pitch," is a book of unforgettable images of America and her people, a prayerful report from one of our most hauntingly accurate, and yet hopeful, recorders. (p. G7)
Robert G. O'Meally, "Poems and the Nation," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1978, The Washington Post), June 25, 1978, pp. G6-G7.
[American Journal] is characteristically spare and lyrical. Hayden chooses his words with more care than most poets use, and there is also a kind of formal ghost hovering behind his lines, so that his free-verse stanzas seem almost to have resolved themselves into something more traditional. Their holding back is what gives them their charm, however. (p. 87)
What is most pleasing about his work is the delicacy and care with which he takes the common tongue, including nicknames and slang, and manages to place every word so cleanly in his lines that a kind of bright, varied mosaic emerges. On a larger scale, this is tied esthetically to his method in "Middle Passage" (A Ballad of Remembrance, 1962), which cuts and splices documents as well as the spoken word. But here, as in the central sequence, "Elegies for Paradise Valley," the individual tiles are plucked from the language we speak, and that common language is balanced against the strictness of the form of each brief section. As in section V, where the form is the counter-weight to the sadness and risky catalogue of names:
And Belle, the classy dresser, where is she,
who changed her frock three times a day?
Where's Nora, with her laugh, her comic flair,
stagestruck Nora waiting for her chance?
Where's fast Iola, who so loved to dance
she left her sickbed one last time to whirl
in silver at The Palace till she fell?
Where's mad Miss Alice, who ate from garbage cans?
Where's snuffdipping Lucy, who played us 'chunes'
on her guitar? Where's Hattie? Where's
Let vanished rooms, let dead streets tell….
The sequence is unsentimental and compassionate. It has a great sense of timing, and utilizes this fully as a poetic resource—Hayden is far too good a poet to rely solely on images to do the poem's work. His rhythmic sense is stronger, and more appealing, in any case, and his use of syntax superb. (pp. 87-8)
Reginald Gibbons, "Hayden, Peck, and Atwood," in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1979 by The Ontario Review), No. 10, Spring-Summer, 1979, pp. 87-94.
Mr. Hayden's precision and economy is ubiquitous in ["American Journal"]; his use of slang, nicknames and the common parlance of the street is full of charm and never overdone….
The appeal of "American Journal" is enhanced by its organization, the lyrical economy with which sequences of poems develop the historical perspective; for Mr. Hayden the desire for beauty is a very human wish to resist the inevitable pain of life…. (p. 18)
Mr. Hayden's thematic attention to history reflects an attention to the vernacular and to the uses of the literary mask; the title poem is a devastating commentary on the contrast between the celebration of ancestral rituals and the damage to our spiritual lives wrought by a materialistic world…. [His] poems promise a blossoming evident in the continuous journal of an America he has both named and penetrated. (p. 20)
Michael S. Harper, "Three Poets," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 21, 1979, pp. 18, 20, 22.∗