Collected Poems

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2364

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.

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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 influenced by the Black Arts Movement. Paying tribute to Hayden’s craft and breadth of vision, poets such as Jay Wright and Michael Harper, who began publishing during the 1960’s, have helped establish Hayden’s importance. Harper’s editorial decision to give Hayden’s work special emphasis in the anthology Chant of Saints (1979), complemented by critical essays by coeditor Stepto and Wilburn Williams, played a crucial role in consolidating Hayden’s recognition within the Afro-American literary community. Even more striking is Hayden’s influence, direct and indirect, on the work of numerous poets, most of them in their teens during the Black Arts Movement, who have begun to attract serious attention only recently. Like Hayden’s work, Smith’s Song for My Fathers (1984), Colleen J. McElroy’s Queen of the Ebony Isles (1984), Melvin Dixon’s Change of Territory (1983), Nathaniel Mackey’s Eroding Witness (1985), and Christopher Gilbert’s Walt Whitman Award-winning Across the Mutual Landscape (1984) seek to combine Afro-American history and personal (frequently religious) sensibility without sacrificing what Harper, writing on Hayden, called the “feel for the formality of pattern, and a resolute purity of diction and tone which musicians would call perfect pitch.” In effect, Hayden offers contemporary Afro-American poets access to a sense of their personal process as part of a collective endeavor. Providing a kind of credo for contemporary pluralist poetics—applicable to poets of all backgrounds—an image from “Locus” intimates the potential for aesthetic unification of natural process, personal perception, and Afro-American history:

  Here spareness, rankness, harshbrilliances; beauty of what’s hardbitten,knotted, stinted, flourishing  in despite, on thorny meagernessthriving, twisting into grace.

Ultimately, Hayden’s “authority”—an atypical authority grounded on acceptance rather than control—derives from the quality of his poetry. Readers familiar with Hayden’s work primarily through the frequently anthologized “racial” poems are likely to find Collected Poems both an affirmation and a challenge. “Homage to the Empress of the Blues,” “Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday,” “Frederick Douglass,” “Runagate Runagate,” and “Middle Passage,” already well established in the Afro-American canon, hold up very well under rereading. The latter deserves recognition as a major work of the Afro-American, “mainstream” American, and modernist traditions. Revoicing texts such as Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and Eliot’s The Waste Land, “Middle Passage” projects a complex vision of psychological and political oppression. Even as it acknowledges black and white complicity in and responsibility for the slave trade, the poem never surrenders to cynicism or despair. Combining epic historical and lyric personal voices in a montage of fragments reminiscent of Eliot, the first section of the poem creates a historical overview of the slave trade. Without denying the extreme suffering of his African ancestors “moaning a prayer for death,” Hayden presents the situation of the white slavers by adapting their own voices. Perhaps the most profound horror of the middle passage, in Hayden’s view, lies in the slavers’ entirely sincere inability to comprehend the significance of their actions. When conditions in the hold give rise to an inevitable epidemic, one crew member writes:

  Which one of ushas killed an albatross? A plague amongour blacks—Ophthalmia: blindness—& wehave jettisoned the blind to no avail.

Allowing the ironies of history to emerge without commentary—which would be superfluous in a poem that begins with a catalog of the actual slave-ship names “Jesús, Estrella, Esperanza, Mercy”—Hayden presents whites as victims of the same system that enslaves the captive Africans. Refusing the political clichés of apologists of any type, Hayden underscores the extensive complicity necessary for the development and maintenance of slavery. Just as the first section of the poem draws attention to the role of New England investors in financing the slave trade, the second section points to the unthinking collaboration of African rulers with the white slavers. Again speaking in the voice of a white slaver who remains entirely unaware of the etiology of the “fevers melting down my bones,” Hayden indicts “the nigger kings whose vanity/ and greed turned wild black hides of Fellatha,/ Mandingo, Ibo, Kru to gold.”

This balanced consideration of responsibility, which contributed to the nationalist antagonism toward Hayden, leads to a visionary conclusion. The final section of “Middle Passage” focuses on the Amistad incident, a slave-ship rebellion led by Joseph Cinquez that resulted, following a trial in which John Quincy Adams defends the rebels against a Spanish request for extradition, in the return of the African rebels to their homeland. Combining the romantic and realistic significance of the slave ships—“Shuttles in the rocking loom of history”—Hayden charts their progress toward “New World littorals that are/ mirage and myth and actual shore.” Like Melville, who treated similar events in Benito Cereno, Hayden filters the incident through a white voice, in this case that of a Spanish crewman who comments on the irony of the American commitment to liberty:

We find it paradoxical indeedthat 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 masters .

For compelling aesthetic and thematic reasons, Melville chose to suppress the black voice in his novella; Hayden’s revoicing concludes with the reassertion of a specifically Afro-American perspective. Moving beyond the pervasive modernist irony suffusing most of the poem, Hayden articulates a romantic vision of the “deep immortal human wish/ the timeless will” motivating the drive for whatever the realistic barriers:

  Cinquez its deathless primaveral image,  life that transfigures many lives.Voyage through death   to life upon these shores.

Derived from an intense confrontation with the “brutal dream” of American racial history, this vision, at once universal and specifically Afro-American, stands as one of the few convincing literary affirmations of the potential of the United States as a “New World” for Africans and Europeans alike.

If Collected Poems reaffirms the status of “Middle Passage,” it also brings fresh attention to neglected poems such as “Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves,” “Stars,” and the more recent “Elegies for Paradise Valley.” “Stars” deserves attention as an example of Hayden’s strategy of juxtaposing Afro-American motifs with other aspects of his sensibility. The poem consists of five sections, each presenting a distinct apprehension of the title image. After sections that treat the star in terms of classical mythology and contemporary science, section 3 concerns Sojourner Truth, the nineteenth century abolitionist and feminist, whom Hayden describes: “following the stars/ her mind a star.” By leading numerous slaves to the freedom associated in Afro-American culture with the North Star, the realistic-historical Sojourner Truth is transformed into a romantic-mythic figure. Placing this racial affirmation with Hayden’s Baha’i beliefs, “Stars” culminates in the image of “The Nine-Pointed Star.” The shift in focus in no way devalues the heroism of the Afro-American tradition; rather, Hayden presents the star as an image of the transcendent power illuminating and guiding constructive realistic actions such as those of Sojourner Truth. It is the “fixed star whose radiance/ filtering down to use lights mind and/ spirit, signals future light.” Again, the abstract and the concrete merge in a vision of potential enlightenment.

During the last years of his life—and despite his Baha’i influenced exploration of American as “a problem in metaphysics”—Hayden’s best work took on an increasingly personal focus. “The Tattooed Man,” for example, concerns Hayden’s sense of himself as outsider-artist:

Hundreds have paidto gawk at me—grotesque outsider whoseunnaturalnessassures them theyare natural, they indeedbelong.

In part a revoicing of Franz Kafka’s parable “A Hunger Artist,” the poem acknowledges a personal sense of torment rare in his earlier work: “I clenched my teeth in pain;/ all art is pain/ suffered and outlived. ” One of the few Hayden poems which might legitimately be called “confessional,” “Elegies for Paradise Valley” traces Hayden’s pain to its concrete sources. A brilliant meditation on the Detroit neighborhood where he was reared, “Elegies for Paradise Valley” catalogs the perceptions that helped shape his poetic sensibility: “the hatred of our kind” he sees in the eyes of a dead junkie, the blues laughter of his murdered Uncle Crip, the fundamentalist mysticism of his mother and aunt. Although the tone of the sequence reflects a deep love for the black community, the final sections articulate his feeling of alienation in the language of the community:

I knew myself (precociousin the ways of guiltand secret pain)the devil’s own rag babydoll.

Still, Hayden recognizes in the intensity of his alienation a profound bond with the black folks who, like the gypsies they fear—like Hayden himself and, from the Baha’i perspective, like all human beings who feel themselves separate from the divine—are condemned to suffer as “aliens among the alien:/ thieves,/ carriers of sickness: like us like us.” For Hayden as romantic, isolation inheres in the human condition, and only the divine offers hope for true transcendence. For Hayden as realist, however, the terms of the striving are inextricably interwoven with the details of social and personal experience. Perhaps his greatest achievement lies in his unceasing attempt as romantic-realist to articulate the ideal in terms of the striving and the striving in terms of the ideal.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 18

Booklist. LXXXI, July, 1985, p. 1504.

Choice. XXIII, January, 1986, p. 742.

Library Journal. CX, June 1, 1985, p. 130.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, April 5, 1985, p. 61.

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