The Poetry of Hayden

by Robert Hayden
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A Wide Range of Styles in a Small Body of Work

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483

On February 24, 1980, the day before Robert Hayden died at the age of sixty-six, the Center for African American and African Studies at the University of Michigan, where Hayden had taught since 1969, sponsored a daylong tribute to Hayden. The occasion served to celebrate Hayden’s accomplishment as a poet and his integrity as a man. The ascendancy of Hayden’s critical reputation signified by that occasion has continued, and Robert Hayden is recognized as one of the significant American poets of his generation. The quantity of his work is not great—his Collected Poems, published posthumously in 1985, runs to fewer than two hundred pages—yet it is work that sustains a high level of artistic merit and that includes a handful of authentically great poems. Hayden’s poetry is impressive for the range and variety of form and theme that it embodies and for the poet’s success in fusing a multiplicity of influences into a body of work as coherent as it is eloquent.

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The influences manifest in Hayden’s first published book, Heart-Shape in the Dust (1940), are essentially two. The first, and the more fundamental in shaping Hayden’s notions of the nature of poetry, is the example of the Harlem Renaissance, the name most commonly given to the remarkable flowering of African American art and literature in the 1920’s. For an African American looking for his own authentic poetic voice in the 1930’s, the work of the poets of the earlier decade confirmed the possibilities of a poetry beyond the orthodoxies of the established schoolroom anthologies. The second influence was more immediately relevant to Hayden’s early sense of the function, as distinguished from the nature, of poetry. Hayden was as a young man attracted to the left-wing ideology, loosely Marxist, that more or less intensely engaged the attention of many young black American artists and intellectuals in the 1930’s. Not surprisingly, then, themes of protest play a significant role in this first collection. The poems themselves would ultimately be dismissed as apprentice work by their author; the mature Hayden would especially move away from the overt protest poems, the primary function of which is to arouse readers to the correct state of political awareness. Hayden would never, however, become indifferent to politics in the broader sense or to the political dimension of the poet’s art. The influence of the Harlem Renaissance would never be rejected but, combined with other influences Hayden would absorb, would become an integral part of his own developing identity as a poet.

The development can be traced in two pamphlets, The Lion and the Archer (1948) and Figure of Time (1955). The poet in full maturity emerges in A Ballad of Remembrance (1962), consisting of revised versions of poems from the two pamphlets and a number of new poems. This book represents the poet’s own evaluation of his work to 1962, what he thought significant and worth preserving.

First Mature Work

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The poet of A Ballad of Remembrance challenges and may at times even baffle readers, especially readers who come to the book with misguided preconceptions about what to expect from an African American poet. It is not protest poetry that is found here, although Hayden casts a clear-eyed gaze on the tensions and torments—but also on the triumphs—that are part and parcel of the experience of being black and American. It is also not a popular poetry, granting easy access to the casual reader, although it finds much of its inspiration in the genius of African American popular culture. It is not a personal, certainly not a confessional, poetry, although Hayden locates sources of pain and reconciliation in the circumstances of his own life, and although the sense of the author as a feeling moral presence binds together the impressively varied contents of the book.

African American history provides Hayden with the thematic source of some of his finest, most intensely realized poems. “Middle Passage” is inspired by the uprising of slaves, led by one Joseph Cinquez, aboard the slave ship Armistad and the incident’s aftermath. Rather than taking a straightforward narrative approach to this material, Hayden makes of it a modernist meditation on history, heroism, the inhumanity that is always a human possibility, and the unkillable human wish for freedom. The influence of a key work of literary modernism, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), makes itself felt in the montage of fragments and multiplicity of voices, ironically juxtaposed, that constitute the first two sections of the poem. In the third section, the focus on the Armistad episode becomes clear through the voice of a surviving officer of the slave ship, who, in a telling and typical irony, believes his words will ensure the death of Cinquez and the defeat of his cause.

In thus presenting the historical materials of the poem in a nonlinear fashion and through a multiplicity of voices, Hayden observes the impersonality that Eliot and others made central to the modernist aesthetic. At the same time, Hayden adapts the accents of modernism to an affirmation, however removed from sentimentality and soft idealization, of the human. Hayden thus breaks dramatically with the articulation of despair, the “Waste Land motif,” associated not only with Eliot but also with many of the major European and European-American works originating from the modernist impulse. Emerging from this, and marking Hayden as the eloquent chronicler of what is most complex in the complex fate dramatized in the poem, is the sense of the Middle Passage as both historical reference and resonant symbol of the American experience, involving both black and white, as an unfinished voyage toward an uncertain shore.

A similar sensitivity to history, its irreducible complexity, and its role in defining the present and in shaping aspirations for the future can be found in other poems in this volume. In “The Ballad of Nat Turner,” Hayden imagines the utterances of yet another leader of a slave rebellion. He does not, however, focus on the bloody outcome of the rebellion, but on the moment when Nat awakens to his destiny. Hayden does not write as a polemicist; it is not the rightness of Nat’s cause that concerns him, but the awfulness of his awakening. The poem carries a powerful psychological and dramatic charge, intensified by the interplay between the spiritual depth of the human situation the poem depicts and the predictable simplicities of the ballad form Hayden employs. Form and subject interact to different, but equally persuasive, effect in Hayden’s sonnet on Frederick Douglass, who is made to incarnate a committed and exemplary awareness of the needfulness of freedom.

In other poems, Hayden draws on aspects of twentieth century African American culture. In “Homage to the Empress of the Blues,” a singer reminiscent of the great Bessie Smith wins the allegiance of her audience as she acknowledges, authenticates, and elevates the pain and confusion of their everyday experience and gives it back to them as art. This art belongs to her, in that she is the performer, yet it is just as much theirs, not simply because she performs for them, but because they are what she performs. “Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday” finds irony, but also compassion, in the violent death of a gospel singer. “Tour 5” finds the menace in the eyes of the rawboned Southerner for whom a black man asking directions is the enemy.

Merging the Personal with the Political

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Recollections of a more personal sort, though always held at a distance, inform other poems. “The Ballad of Sue Ellen Westerfield” has as its protagonist a composite of Hayden’s biological and his foster mothers; the name the character bears is in fact the maiden name of Hayden’s foster mother. In “The Whipping,” the reminiscence motivated by the sound of a child being beaten is ultimately inspired by Hayden’s memories of beatings he suffered at the hands of his foster mother. The poet’s insight that the beatings the woman administers are a pathetically inadequate revenge for the beatings life has given her brings the poem to rest in compassion rather than in bitterness. A note of reconciliation is also struck in the fine poem “Those Winter Sundays.” Here the poet belatedly recognizes and accepts the love manifested in tending the furnace on cold Sunday mornings and in similarly unrecognized acts of caring performed by an otherwise remote and, at times, frighteningly angry foster father (in the poem, simply “father”).

A particular personal experience generates one of Hayden’s most powerful treatments of the theme of art, one of the frequent concerns of his mature poetry. Hayden and Mark Van Doren, a white poet, critic, and educator, had read their poems from the same platform at a bond rally in New Orleans in 1946. In accordance with the Jim Crow practices of the period, however, the two men could not sit down to coffee together in any of the city’s restaurants. The irony of the situation might easily have given rise to a fairly conventional protest poem. Instead, in “A Ballad of Remembrance,” the title poem of the volume, Hayden assaults readers with a rush of violently juxtaposed images, suggesting a Mardi Gras that has gone over the edge. The poem builds to a chaos in the environment and in the self, a jumble of feelings, attitudes, responses, and hostile presences that the poet transcends by finding the human voice drawn forth by the presence and example of Van Doren, who is identified by name in the poem. That it is the human, rather than the narrowly racial, voice that must be found and that it can for Hayden be exemplified by a white poet, suggests how far Hayden’s thought here is removed from the ideology of Black Nationalism, at least as that ideology would, before the 1960’s were over, emerge as a major force within the African American community. It was a force whose impact Hayden would be made to feel.

An especially impressive quality of this book, the mark of the mature poet, is the mastery Hayden demonstrates over a range of formal and tonal strategies. The thematic energy of the poems is consistently echoed in their formal qualities. The baroque elaboration of diction and imagery in “A Ballad of Remembrance,” yielding to the almost ingenuous directness of the closing, is one example. The controlled elevation of rhetoric in “Frederick Douglass,” the ease and assurance with which the poet has mastered here the influence of Gerard Manley Hopkins, again claiming for African American poetry all that is useful and relevant in the European tradition, lend to the poem its particular kind of eloquence: a grandeur—never grandiosity—of the whole, arising out of language only slightly elevated above the common, intensified by the deliberateness of progression with which the poem moves to its conclusion. In a different register, the blues feeling of “Homage to the Empress of the Blues” and the echoes of gospel music in “Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday” give emotional and spiritual definition to their subjects. In “The Whipping” and “Those Winter Sundays,” a relative starkness of language, coming as it does from a poet whose virtuosity is elsewhere in the book so dazzlingly on display, makes its own compelling statement.

A Ballad of Remembrance was published in Europe. For his Selected Poems, published in 1966, Hayden was able to find an American publisher, a reflection of the degree of recognition he was beginning to enjoy. It was also in 1966 that Hayden was the recipient of the Grand Prix de la Poesie awarded by the First World Festival of Negro Arts held in Dakar, Senegal; Langston Hughes was one of the jurors. It was in that same year, too, that Hayden received recognition of a more troubling sort when the first Black Writers’ Conference convened at Fisk University, on whose faculty Hayden had served since 1946. Hayden was distressed to find himself the target of denunciations by black writers who regarded themselves as more militant, more nationalist—more “black,” according to the preferred rhetoric of the period—than he. Hayden rejected nationalism as an ideology, separatism as a practice, the notion of a unique black aesthetic, of any set of prescriptions that might limit the freedom of the African American poet to find and follow his own inspiration. He insisted on the integrity of his vision and his art. While Hayden’s dedication to his African American heritage is more than adequately manifested in his work, he always regarded that heritage as part of the human heritage, the struggle of African Americans as part of the human struggle toward freedom.

Later Work

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The artistic maturity Hayden achieved in A Ballad of Remembrance is confirmed by Selected Poems and by the volumes that follow it. “The Diver,” which introduces Selected Poems, is intriguing for its imagistic vividness and its thematic ambiguities: Into what depths does the poet descend, and what motivates the ascent that provides the poem with its resolution? In “The Diver,” as in earlier poems such as “An Inference of Mexico” and later ones such as “The Night-Blooming Cereus” and “The Peacock Room,” Hayden clearly and without apology departs from any overt treatment of narrowly racial themes, a departure that, once again, reflects his rejection of a nationalist agenda for poetry. In these later poems, and perhaps in “The Diver” as well, Hayden’s concern is with the mystery and magnetism of the creative power as it reveals itself in the natural world and in the human, especially, in the latter, in the form of art.

Hayden by no means abandons his fascination with African American history. “Runagate, Runagate,” perhaps less formally complex than “Middle Passage” but comparable to it in its formal strategies, uses the figures of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad in a further meditation on freedom as a fundamental human urge. Phillis Wheatley, Crispus Attucks, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Paul Robeson are subjects of later Hayden poems, as is John Brown, a white man of special importance in African American history. Hayden’s “El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz” must surely be numbered among the finest poems written about Malcolm X; no small part of its excellence must be attributed to Hayden’s characteristic insistence on the full human complexity of the subject. In “Beginnings” and “Elegies for Paradise Valley,” Hayden draws, rather more directly than in his earlier work, on his personal and family history.

A theme that is only occasionally present at the surface of Hayden’s poetry but that was a fundamental force in shaping his vision was his religious faith. Raised as a Baptist, Hayden in 1943 converted to the Baha’i religion. The tenets of Baha’i certainly bear on the note of hope found even in those poems such as “Middle Passage” that confront most directly the tragic history of race relations in America. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that Hayden’s religious faith made it possible for him to see that history as, at least potentially, other than tragic.


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Cooke, Michael G. “Intimacy: The Interpretation of the One and All in Robert Hayden and Alice Walker.” In Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century: The Achievement of Intimacy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984. Argues that Hayden and Walker represent the fullest achievement of intimacy, a sense of power and purpose coming from within. Hayden’s stance as a poet is at once passive and militant: passive, in his refusal to force a particular result upon experience; militant, in his insistence that experience has results to which one cannot be indifferent.

Faulkner, Howard. “’Transformed by Steeps of Flight’: The Poetry of Robert Hayden.” CLA Journal 21 (1977-1978): 282-291. Asserts that Hayden’s profound theme is transformation. Emphasizing process rather than completed act, he traces the movement up to and down from beauty.

Fetrow, Fred M. Robert Hayden. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A biographical and critical study that gives more emphasis than is common to Hayden’s early poems. Much of Hayden’s poetry can be most fully understood if read in the light of the poet’s biography. Giving voice to the alien and expressing himself through that persona are important strategies for Hayden.

Goldstein, Laurence, and Robert Chrisman, eds. Robert Hayden: Essays on the Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. Collection of scholarly work on Hayden’s poetry and its place in the American and African American literary canons.

Hansell, William H. “The Spiritual Unity of Robert Hayden’s Angle of Ascent. ” Black American Literature Forum 13 (1979): 24-31. Hayden has attempted to portray all human activity as a spiritual journey, however distorted and confused, toward sanctity.

Hatcher, John. From the Auroral Darkness: The Life and Poetry of Robert Hayden. Oxford, England: George Ronald, 1977. Notes that Hayden wrote as an African American and as a Baha’i in what he regarded as a crucial period of transition. As a serious artist, his accomplishment, based on a recognition of the timeless requisites of art, was to fuse his feelings and ideas with form and image.

Stepto, Robert. “After Modernism, After Hibernation: Michael Harper, Robert Hayden, and Jay Wright.” In Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship, edited by Michael S. Harper and Robert B. Stepto. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979. States that like Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man (1952), Hayden, in “Elegies for Paradise Valley,” works toward imparting visibility, and therefore reality, to what had previously been unseen.

Williams, Pontheolla. Robert Hayden: A Critical Analysis of His Poetry. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987. A critical study, incorporating a biographical sketch and informed in part by Hayden’s personal observations. Hayden fully embraced his black identity, but always as an American poet. He remained true to the primary duty of the artist: to impose form on experience and to derive meaning from art.

Williams, Wilburn, Jr. “Covenant of Timelessness and Time: Symbolism and History in Robert Hayden’s Angle of Ascent. ” In Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship, edited by Michael S. Harper and Robert B. Stepto. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979. Argues that Hayden, although a symbolist intent on divining the shape of a transcendent order that might redeem a world bent on its own destruction, believed the transcendent realm can be meaningful only as incarnated in human historical experience.

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