Near the end of “Locus,” a complex meditation on the landscape of the American South, Robert Hayden envisions “symbol houses/ where the brutal dream lives outs its lengthy/ dying.” Collapsing the distinction between history and aesthetics, the phrase provides a touchstone for consideration of Hayden’s personal achievement and of his steadily increasing influence on a wide range of younger Afro-American poets. Equally at ease with the high modernism of T. S. Eliot, the religious lyricism of George Herbert, and the blues-jazz populism of Langston Hughes, Hayden resists easy categorization. As a result, his importance has too frequently been underestimated or misunderstood. Perhaps the primary value of this intelligently edited volume (which, despite its title, includes no work from three early volumes dismissed by the poet as “apprentice” work) is to encourage reconsideration of the complex strategies Hayden generated in response to his situation as an Afro-American poet of cosmopolitan awareness coming to terms with the brutal dream of American history.
The political form of that brutality is a well-documented saga extending from the slave trade of the 1600’s to the inner cities of the 1980’s. In aesthetic terms, the brutality has often, and insidiously, been manifested through two contradictory, but intimately related, propositions advanced by numerous white critics of Afro-American literature. On the one hand, these critics insist that Afro-American poets place racial concerns at the center of their work; on the other, they cite such emphasis as evidence of the failure of the poets to transcend “limited” concerns. It is not surprising that this double bind has frequently driven Afro-American writers to assume one of two extreme positions: a fierce insistence on the centrality of race to their work or an equally fierce denial of centrality. Anticipated by the best work of W. E. B. Du Bois, Zoral Neale Hurston, and Hughes, Hayden adamantly refused to accept either approach. Rather, he responded to what Robert B. Stepto, writing on Hayden’s contemporary Ralph Ellison, identified as a central impulse in recent Afro-American writing: “a clarion cry for multiple images and voicings of the Afro-American hero’s” condition. Simultaneously sounding and responding to this call, Hayden endorses an aesthetic pluralism predicated on acceptance of the full complexity of each individual’s specific heritage and vision.
The personal dimension of Hayden’s pluralistic commitment can be seen through a quick survey of his most frequently anthologized and discussed poems, which employ several distinct, but ultimately coherent, voices. “Homage to the Empress of the Blues,” “Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday,” and “Elegies for Paradise Valley” concentrate, thematically and stylistically, on the specifically Afro-American dimensions of Hayden’s experience. “Middle Passage” and “Runagate Runagate” treat Afro-American thematic material in an allusive, fragmented style usually associated with Euro-American modernism. Poems such as “Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves,” “Witch Doctor,” and “’An Inference of Mexico’,” formally similar to certain strains of Stevensesque “postmodernism,” present the encounter with racial heritage as an exploration of individual consciousness. Equally important to a full understanding of Hayden’s significance, however, are poems with no explicit racial dimension. These include personal lyrics such as “The Diver,” “The Night-Blooming Cereus,” and “Bone Flower Elegy,” as well as poems such as “Baha’u’llah in the Garden of Ridwan” and “As My Blood Was Drawn,” which emphasize Hayden’s Baha’i faith. Each of Hayden’s voices sounds as early as A Ballad of Remembrance (1962), his first important volume. As the following passage from the title poem of American Journal (1978) makes clear, he continued to develop his vision of self, society, and religion as aspects of a single ongoing quest until shortly before his death in 1980.
america as much a problem in metaphysics asit is a nation earthly entity an iota in ourgalaxy an organism that changes even as iexamine it fact and fantasy never twice thesame so many variables
Hayden, commenting on his treatment of these variables, described himself as a romantic-realist. The term highlights another explanation for the delay in widespread recognition of his work as central to the Afro-American canon. His refusal to subordinate his pluralism or idealism—visible primarily but not exclusively in his religious work—to explicitly political concerns contributed to an uneasy relationship between Hayden and the nationalistic poets who emerged during the Black Arts Movement of the 1960’s and early 1970’s. As Gary Smith, who claims Hayden as a literary ancestor in Song for My Fathers, writes:
The Sixties hurt you.More than youwere willing to admitThough the Seventies were better, then too, you had detractors, impatient with craft,who shouted down your art as appeasement.
In retrospect, the generational attacks to which Smith refers seem particularly ironic. In fact, recognition of Hayden’s work as comparable to that of Hughes or Gwendolyn Brooks—both of whom fared far better during the 1960’s—has stemmed largely from the efforts of younger poets and critics whose sensibilities were strongly...
(The entire section is 2364 words.)