Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1670
The subtitle of Robert Hayden’s book, “New and Selected Poems,” is a bit misleading in that this collection is composed largely of poems previously published. Of the four divisions of poems in the book, only the first, “Angle of Ascent,” is original. The others, “The Night-Blooming Cereus,” “A Ballad of Remembrance,” and “Words in the Mourning Time,” are the titles of other books already published. Nonetheless, although he is not as prolific as many writers, Hayden is a poet whose works deserve the additional exposure this publication affords. His poetry has earned for him two Hopwood Awards as well as Rosenwald, Ford Foundation, and Academy of American Poets Fellowships. In addition, A Ballad of Remembrance was awarded the Grand Prize of the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal, in 1966, and Words in Mourning Time was nominated for a National Book Award in 1972.
More than a black poet, Robert Hayden is a poet who happens to be black. Although the black heritage does make up a majority of the subject matter of his output, his voice is not a strident one, or one espousing a militant cause, taking advantage of his color; in fact, Hayden has been criticized for his refusal to play up his blackness and “politicize” in his writing. Rather, his poems dealing with the black experience gain a stronger force by their calm re-counting of the past without posturing. All readers can empathize with his descriptions of the conditions that prevailed in the past as well as his depiction of life today or his responses to natural phenomena.
Hayden’s title comes from his poem, “For a Young Artist,” which is based on a story entitled, “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings,” by Gabriel García Márques. The poem speaks of “a naked old man/ with bloodstained wings” sprawling in a pigsty. He is displayed to the public as a sort of carnival freak, raising the question among them of whether he might be an “actual angel” fallen from the sky. Finally, the old man leaps, and
He strains, an awk-ward patsy, sweating strainsleaping falling. Then—silken rustling in the air,the angle of ascentachieved.
This poem exemplifies Hayden’s opinion of the artist’s responsibility to seek transcendence in everyday life among the living. He is firmly rooted in the “pigsty” of sordid reality from which, instead of groveling, he soars on the wings of poetry. Without repudiating his ethnic background, Hayden’s writing gives evidence of a calm, gentle, and urbane wit.
Most numerous and striking in the book are the poems dealing with specific black themes. Hayden is interested in tracing his roots, both as an individual black man and as the inheritor of a black tradition in the United States. In “Beginnings,” he traces the lives of Joe Finn from the Allegheny wilderness joining the Union Army, “Greatgrandma Easter, on my father’s side,” who “was a Virginia freedman’s Indian bride,” great aunt Sally and great aunt Melisse, and Floyd Collins, “Poor game loner/ trapped in the rock/ of Crystal Cave.” The search for kinfolk is also the subject of “’Mystery Boy’ Looks for Kin in Nashville”:
And when he gets to where the voices were—Don’t cry, his dollbaby wife implores;I know where they are. don’t cry.We’ll go and find them, we’ll goAnd ask them for your name again.
The search for black identity takes the poet to the slave trade in “Middle Passage,” a powerful poem intermixing the description of the suffering of the slaves (“their moaning is a prayer for death,/ ours and their own. Some try to starve themselves./ Lost three this morning leaped with crazy laughter/ to the waiting sharks, sang as they went under”) and the uncomprehending prayerful account (“We pray that Thou wilt grant, O Lord,/ safe passage to our vessels bringing/ heathen souls unto Thy chastening”) of one of the slavers describing the misfortunes of the ship suffering an outbreak of sickness in which slaves and sailors are going blind. The blind slaves are thrown overboard to prevent the disease from spreading. The poem ends with a description of a half-successful mutiny where the slaves force the two remaining seamen to pilot the ship back to Africa. Instead, they steer east by day and west by night until they land in America, and are distressed
that you whose wealth, whose tree of libertyare rooted in the labor of your slavesshould suffer the august John Quincy Adamsto speak with so much passion of the rightof chattel slaves to kill their lawful mastersand with his Roman rhetoric weave a hero’sgarland for Cinquez.
In this poem, the terrible dichotomy of America’s dependence on, and abhorrence of slavery is laid bare in the obscene juxtaposition of the prayers to a Christian God and the inhumane treatment of fellow human beings.
Hayden also speaks of other horrors suffered by blacks, as in “Night, Death, Mississippi,” which describes a Klan beating and castration of black victims. Again, the subject matter gains strength through Hayden’s device of speaking from the persecutors’ point of view (“Christ, it was better/ than hunting bear/ which don’t know why you want him dead”), and interspersing a kind of religious litany: “O Jesus burning on the lily cross.” “Locus” joins the past, “adored and unforgiven,” with the present “apartheid streets . . . where the brutal dream lives out its lengthy/ dying.”
Some of the better poems dealing with the black experience are those of recognizable human types leading their meager day-to-day existence. In “The Dream” Hayden makes use of the black idiom in describing Sinda waiting for her man Cal who has joined “Marse Lincum’s soldier boys.” The poet artfully mingles fragments of Cal’s semi-literate letter to her (“I seen some akshun but that is what i listed for”) with the narration of her struggling to the road to welcome the soldiers on their return. “Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves” is about a freak show stereotype “enacting someone’s notion of themselves/ (and me)” whose man was “killed in the war/ to save the world for another war.” One’s color is irrelevant to the theme of “The Whipping,” an account of a mother’s spanking of her boy, “shouting to the neighborhood/ her goodness and his wrongs.” A keen understanding of all humanity rings forth in the lines describing the exhausted mother after the whipping, “avenged in part for lifelong hidings/ she has had to bear.”
In addition to these poems touching on black life, there are a few of the usual type celebrating the traditional black heroes as Sojourner Truth, Crispus Attucks, Malcolm X, Nat Turner, and Frederick Douglass. Martin Luther King, Jr. is eulogized along with Robert Kennedy in “Words in Mourning Time,” which also mourns “for America, self-destructive, self-betrayed.”
As some of the previous examples illustrate, Hayden’s poetry is deeply imbued with a religious fervor. Besides juxtaposing religious sentiments with examples of man’s inhumanity, the poet brings in the deity naturally while ostensibly describing some natural phenomenon, such as “Full Moon” which “burned in the garden of Gethsemane.” Or it is brought in to question the “archetypal dangers of the night” as in “Electrical Storm.”
Not so pleasant on the religious theme are those poems dealing with the hypocrisy of organized religions. “The Rabbi” describes the changing neighborhood of the poet’s youth where “the synagogue became/ New Calvary,” a black Christian church, and where the Jewish merchants selling schnapps to schwartzes would “soon be rich as Rothschild.” “Witch Doctor” presents a marvelous description of a modern black preacher whose “outrageous flair” is half admired by the neighbors peering out of their venetian blinds. His magic is “wrought from hypochondria of the well-/ to-do and nagging deathwish of the poor.” He speaks “wildering vocables,/ hypnotic no-words planned (and never failing)/ to enmesh his flock in theopathic tension.” “Convulsive energies of eager faith” fill the church. Finally, “he dances, dances, ensorcelled and aloof,/ the fervid juba of God as lover, healer,/ conjurer. And of himself as God.”
Hayden’s poetic inspiration is not solely from the culture of black America. He offers masterful descriptions in such poems as “Butterfly Piece” (“Jewel corpses fixed/ in glass. Black opal flowerskin banded/ neargold yellow; seaagate striped berylgreen”), “The Night-Blooming Cereus” (“the bud packed/ tight with its miracle swayed/ stiffly on breaths/ of air”), and “The Diver” (“the sad slow/ dance of gilded/ chairs, the ectoplasmic/ swirl of garments/ drowned instruments/ of buoyancy”). Sometimes he turns to Mexico and Egypt for his inspiration, as in the eight-part work, “An Inference of Mexico,” and “Two Egyptian Portrait Masks.” Occasionally, he follows the example of most other poets in writing of the poetic experience itself. In all his poems, he is deeply concerned with the eternal questions of the meaning of life and death.
Only rarely does a flash of overt humor appear in these poems, but when it does it is right on the mark. “Unidentified Flying Object” is a dramatic monologue describing the mysterious disappearance of Mattie Lee who was allegedly seen by Will entering a flying saucer. The experience has changed Will so that he no longer drinks. But since Will had been “craving her” and “she held herself too good/ for him” people are starting to talk. The speaker concludes, “And some are hinting what I,/ for one—well, never mind./ The talk is getting mean.”
Some few of Hayden’s poems are sometimes challenging in their obscurity, but always his message is a worthwhile one. The poems are succinct and to the point as poetry should be. Hayden’s chief interest is in the soul of mankind; and a sincere and fervid sense of a personal God permeates his works. Hayden’s reputation as a black poet is firmly established, and his works are anthologized with writings of other blacks; he now deserves to be acclaimed as a poet, without qualifications or restrictions to the title.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 20
America. CXXXIV, February 7, 1976, p. 103.
Choice. XIII, April, 1976, p. 223.
Hudson Review. XXIX, Spring, 1976, p. 125.
New York Times Book Review. February 22, 1976, p. 34.
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