Words in the Mourning Time Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.)

Words in the Mourning Time Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Robert Hayden. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005.

Conniff, Brian. “Robert Hayden and the Rise of the African American Poetic Sequence.” African American Review 33, no. 3 (Fall, 1999): 487-506.

Davis, Arthur P. “Robert Hayden.” In From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900 to 1960. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1982.

Davis, Charles T. “Robert Hayden’s Use of History.” In Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Donald B. Gibson. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

Fetrow, Fred M. “Portraits and Personae: Characterization in the Poetry of Robert Hayden.” In Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960, edited by R. Baxter Miller. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986.

Fetrow, Fred M. Robert Hayden. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

Gikandi, Simon. “Race and the Idea of the Aesthetic.” Michigan Quarterly Review 40, no. 2 (Spring, 2001): 318-350.

Glaysher, Frederick, ed. Collected Prose: Robert Hayden. Foreword by William Meredith. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984.

Goldstein, Laurence, and Robert Chrisman, eds. Robert Hayden: Essays on the Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001.

Su, Adrienne. “The Poetry of Robert Hayden.” Library Cavalcade 52, no. 2 (October, 1999): 8-11.

Williams, Pontheolla T. Robert Hayden: A Critical Analysis of His Poetry. Foreword by Blyden Jackson. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.