Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In “Words in the Mourning Time,” Hayden comes to terms with the tempestuous, violent 1960’s. Explicitly, Hayden is mourning the deaths by assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. Implicitly, he is concerned with the damage done to the body politic by enduring injustice. He alludes to the riots that had rocked African American ghettos, sparked by King’s death but nourished by years of inequality. Further, as a poet, Hayden is concerned with the destruction of language that results when words are pressed to service in an ignoble cause. He decries the distortions used to justify the war in Vietnam: “Killing people to save them, to free them?” the poet asks.
In traditional mourning for a loved one, a person moves through horror at the death to a grudging understanding of nature to, in some cases, a deeper appreciation of spiritual realms. This is the path Hayden follows in his ten-part poem, drawing on his ability to play with multiple voices, though not so much to ventriloquize different speakers as to move through various styles of writing.
In the first six sections, the poet recites a litany of contemporary American problems. This is hardly a monotonous cataloging, as the writer keeps changing tacks as he drives home his message: An aphorism in section 2 suggests an ugly alliance between platitudes and violence; section 3 contains the arresting image of a wasted beggar whose peeling flesh mixes with his food;...
(The entire section is 408 words.)
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