A Wide Range of Styles in a Small Body of Work

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.

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...

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First Mature Work

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

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Merging the Personal with the Political

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

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Later Work

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

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