Robert Hayden Poetry: American Poets Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3864

In his poetry, Robert Hayden suggested that human beings once dwelt in a Neoplatonic world of faultless knowledge and harmony. Although he often cast a wistful backward glance toward that lost perfection, he also dreamed of an equally perfect future harmony through which the difficulties of this world could be...

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In his poetry, Robert Hayden suggested that human beings once dwelt in a Neoplatonic world of faultless knowledge and harmony. Although he often cast a wistful backward glance toward that lost perfection, he also dreamed of an equally perfect future harmony through which the difficulties of this world could be transcended. Nevertheless, he focused his poetic attention on this world, on the shifting and equivocal present. Calling himself a “realist who distrusts so-called reality,” Hayden wrote with a clear realistic bent: His work centers on the natural and human of this place and time. These he lovingly describes, yet he also distrusts them; for the present reality is, both factually and poetically, one that betrays the hopes and dreams of human beings.

Because of this ambivalence, Hayden’s poetry has always a slightly distant, reserved quality, and although the tone gives way sometimes to simple weariness, other times to wistfulness, the dominant tone is ironic acceptance. Even though many of Hayden’s poems are on specifically black themes, using such archetypal images of African American literature as flight, and although many celebrate the historical heroes of African American life, Hayden’s detachment was often at odds, particularly during the 1970’s, with the dominant mood of black culture. Hayden’s poetry may occasionally have a political subject, and it is always critical of the cruelties and hypocrisies of the United States’ past, but it is not polemical or didactic, and Hayden’s appeal resides perhaps more among other artists and academicians than among a large popular audience. Indeed, despite the consistency of Hayden’s output, he was not published by a major press in the United States until Liveright published Angle of Ascent in 1975.

Daedalus poems

In “For a Young Artist” (from Angle of Ascent) and his earlier “O Daedalus, Fly Away Home” (from A Ballad of Remembrance), Hayden describes his view of the task of poetry, its relationship to the reader, and the stance of the poet. “For a Young Artist,” based on a story by Gabriel García Márquez, begins with a protagonist, the artist, trapped in a pigsty. His condition is a tragic one, but he subsists on the meager fare that he scavenges from nature, rejecting the charity of society. Much of the focus of the poem is on that society: It finds the fallen artist at once baffling and prophetic. The people curse him but ask for his blessing, unable to decide whether he is “actual angel? carny freak?”

The uncertainty of their vision is characteristic in Hayden’s world, where one struggles to make sense of his drastically reduced and often deceitful surroundings. The artist himself, however, is proud, refusing charity, refusing to hide his nakedness. His struggle—and this is the distinctive motif in Hayden’s poetry—is for ascent. His transformation from ugliness to beauty, his attempt at flight is a difficult one, but after many failures, he finally achieves the “angle of ascent” in a “silken rustling” of air. In “O Daedalus, Fly Away Home,” a more impressionistic poem, the main character also makes for himself a set of wings; struggling there against the powers of night, he weaves together “a wish and a weariness” to rise above the evil spell and fly home.

Transformations of reality

Hayden’s poetry is always about such transformations of reality. For him, the world is confusing and contradictory. All that human beings can know is the darkness of this world: Their former and their future knowledge remain merely clouds. One knows only shadows, as in Plato’s cave. The human attitude is thus a wish for the light that lies beyond, a weariness for the light that humankind has lost. The human need is a search to reconcile the two, to balance the two shadowy worlds or to transform this world.

In either case, Hayden’s poetry is always dialectic: Each poem arises out of such conflicts as time and timelessness, art and history, dream and memory, past and present, flight and descent. What the artist must do is weave together those opposites into a set of poetic wings, synthesize the two into a oneness, itself a vision of the ultimate oneness, so that the reader understands better the necessary but frightening, terrible but beautiful position that human beings occupy in the world.

Poetry of balance

Hayden’s poetry, with its careful balance between a world he loves and lives in and must describe and his dissatisfaction with its failures and limitations and with his vision of what life was and must be again, teases the reader with its doubled perspective and its delicate and supple language. The poems themselves are often traditional in their narrative structure and regular rhythm. Paradox and pun, both suggesting tension, are frequent devices, and irony, an attitude of approving distance, is the most common tone. Hayden’s poetry is a world observed with wit and disappointment, with love and sorrow. His strongest work makes the reader reobserve the world, set in the context of history and art, of philosophy and poetics. Hayden is an African American poet in his specific attention to black myths and heroes, if not in an attempt to capture the distinctive voices of black culture. He is also, however, simply a poet, for the themes he works through and the voices with which he speaks make real a universally human perception of this world.

A characteristic posture for Hayden’s poetic figures is, then, one of balance. Hayden gives this theme witty representation in the poem “The Performers” (from The Night-Blooming Cereus), where the persona watches literal balancers, “two minor Wallendas,” who are washing windows seven stories up in space. The persona identifies with them and their dangerous situation until he sees himself falling. The window washers enter his office, thanking him for his understanding of their position, as he thanks them for making him see once more his own precarious yet protected location. They are like the poet-juggler in Richard Wilbur’s poem “Juggler,” and their job, like that of Wilbur’s poet-persona, is to make others see the world again in both its freshness and its gravity.

The balance may be between the two attractive opposites of past and future perfection, but because they are but shadows, it is more frequently between present, human realities. In “Moose Wallow” (from Angle of Ascent), the protagonist feels the shadowy presence of moose watching him from either side, while he experiences both hope and fear. In “The Broken Dark” (from Words in the Mourning Time), a rabbi describes “Demons on the left. Death on either side,/ . . . the way of life between.” Within this world, the poet finds himself both alien and at home, both struggling to accept the world and attempting to flee it. The need for acceptance leads to the strong realistic feeling of Hayden’s work: the attention to detail, the careful visual imagery, and the strong characterization and narration. Indeed, some of Hayden’s most vivid poetry depends on the brilliant creation of character and on his storytelling ability.

Romanticism vs. realism

The struggle to flee the world, however, leads to an equally pervasive attraction to myth, history, and art—alternatives to the time-drenched present—and to philosophical abstraction, as in the emphasis on Platonic reflections, that gives the poetry an equally consistent romantic quality. If in his realism Hayden resembles a poet such as Wilbur, in his Romanticism he most resembles William Butler Yeats. There are specific similarities: The twelve-year-old girl of “The Peacock Room” (from The Night-Blooming Cereus), who becomes a cadaver caught up in the folds of a fluttering peacock, recalls several of the poems about Maud Gonne. “Dance the Orange” (from The Night-Blooming Cereus) concludes with a Yeatsian merging of the dancer and the dance. “Lear Is Gay” (from Words in the Mourning Time) uses the metaphor of time as a scarecrow. The similarity is more than incidental, however: It is essential to Hayden’s vision, and one of the powers of his poetry arises from this tension between his Romantic underpinnings and his realistic surface.

“Monet’s ’Waterlilies’”

This tension is evident in “Monet’s ’Waterlilies’” (from Words in the Mourning Time), the first section of which is a meditation on the “poisonous news” from Selma, Alabama, and Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam. From this reality, the poet retreats to art, to the painting that he loves, where space and time are reconciled; then “The seen, the known/ dissolve in iridescence.” Looking at the painting, the poet discovers the “aura of that world/ each of us has lost.” Then reality gives way, and the painting becomes the “shadow” of the joy of that lost world. Indeed, several of Hayden’s poems suggest his attraction to the static visual arts and his conviction that poetry is like painting: “Richard Hunt’s ’Arachne’” (from The Night-Blooming Cereus), “Kodachromes of the Island” (from Words in the Mourning Time), “Butterfly Piece” (from Angle of Ascent), “The Peacock Room”—these and several others have as their subject humanity’s attempt to transform reality into something more nearly resembling the ultimate presence than its human and temporal manifestation.

“Butterfly Piece”

In “Butterfly Piece,” the poet examines Brazilian butterflies that have been preserved and encased as works of art, and it seems he can find no higher praise than to compare them with Fabergé’s enamel work: Nature may mirror art, but the movement of the poem is away from this assurance. In the second stanza, Hayden focuses on how their bright colors resemble those of the human world, colors so bright that they burden, that they break. Finally then, he comments that this wild beauty has been killed and sold “to prettify,” a distinct diminishment of the original implication. Thus art provides for Hayden one alternative to the human world, where lives are too often burdened, too often break. However, if perfect art can in its serene reconciliation of time and space rekindle memories of a more perfect vision, it can also be a diminution of reality; even here, then, Hayden maintains the ambivalence of his vision.


Like art, history provides an alternative to present patterns. Sometimes the history is personal, as in “Beginnings,” the poem that opens Angle of Ascent and that itself opens simply with the names of Hayden’s ancestors; this calling the roll suggests the search for identity that is another theme in Hayden’s work, one obviously related to his own confused childhood identity. More often the history is public, as in the events of the American past, and particularly those of black American history, representing a time outside the uneasy present.

“Middle Passage”

The historical urge is most clearly seen in Hayden’s narrative poetry, such as in “Middle Passage,” a long poem in which the coming of slaves to America is told by a series of different voices. That poem, too—and it is among Hayden’s finest—begins with a list of names: the hopeful and religious names of the slave ships, Hayden writes, bright and ironical compared with the grim cargo of human beings they are delivering. The voices include that of the ship’s log and of a witness at a trial. Ariel’s song from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611), a song used by T. S. Eliot for different purposes in The Waste Land (1922), suggests that those who have been drowned have been transformed, not into pearl or coral as in Shakespeare’s vision, but into New England pews and altar lights.

Hymns enter, as well as the voice of the slave trader himself. In the climactic third section, the first voice is that of the poet, describing the horrible historic voyage “through death”; the second is that of a white slave trader who has survived the mutiny on the Amistad, in which blacks rose up and took over the ship. The self-justifying voice of that narrator counterpoints the bravery of Cinquez, the prince who led the mutiny and transformed the horror of confinement by using the terrible liberating force of rebellion. This is, the poet says at last, “the deep immortal human wish/ the timeless will”; it is that of transfiguration, of life out of death, a living death redeemed into new life. In this historical vision, Hayden creates his most powerful narrative image of humankind’s potential transformation—for Hayden, all life is a voyage, all human beings are confined, all worthwhile acts are attempts to be free.

Dream and memory

As well as the balance between the present reality and such timeless entities as myth, history, and art, Hayden presents the balance between dream, the longing for a perfect future, and memory, the dimly recalled past, as alternatives to the present. “The Dream” (from Words in the Mourning Time) contrasts the dreams of liberation of a Southern slave who envisions her liberators as heroic and mythic figures with excerpts from letters of a Union soldier who is among her real liberators. Although the letters are often hackneyed and sentimental, their humor stale, they have a human bravery and modesty that is attractive. As always, Hayden’s vision of them is ambivalent, but it is finally affirmative. The dreams, however beautiful in their abstract imaginings, are inappropriate to the reality, and the dreamer sinks to the ground at the end, attempting to rise, but failing.

Distrusting the present, Hayden creates in his poetry a tension between it and timeless worlds—art, history, myth, memory, and desire. Out of those tensions, he finds the movement of his poetry. Thus, in his work, as in the human lives he describes, there is a constant choice, an alternation of poetic attention and human needs, so that his characters, like the poet, are always at once alien to and at home in this world, making an uneasy peace, living in delicate balance.

Motifs of transformation

There is in Hayden another way of dealing with dialectical opposition: not the balancing of the two, but the movement from one to another. As often as his poems depict stasis and balance, so also do they suggest synthesis through process, an equal possibility for working through humankind’s ambiguous place in the world. Thus transformation and metamorphosis become major motifs in his work. In “Theme and Variation” (from Angle of Ascent), which—as the title suggests—indicates the large direction of Hayden’s work, he writes that “all things alter . . . become a something more,/ a something less.” In “Richard Hunt’s ’Arachne,’” for example, he captures the movement downward. Here Arachne is caught in the moment of her transformation from human to arachnid—not yet changed to unthinking animal, no longer fully woman. Horrible as the surface is, however, Hayden’s attitude remains detached: If she is on one hand “dying,” she is on the other “becoming.”

“An Inference of Mexico”

The theme of transformation informs and unifies Hayden’s long poem “An Inference of Mexico” (from A Ballad of Remembrance). Like many of his works, this poem involves travel. Hayden writes about “the migratory habits of the soul,” but it is clear that the body migrates through the world as well. (The contrast with the settledness of Hayden’s own adult life is interesting.) In this poem, the light of Mexico, strange and savage, causes the persona to reexamine his world. The first section involves a burial, the putting away of the old life; as he watches a funeral, he looks upward to see “graveblack vultures,” which are “transformed by steeps of flight.” An anonymous voice urges him to flee, but when, in the second section, he looks at the mountains, they are equally dark and seem themselves to be “imploring a god.” In the third section, “Veracruz,” he looks at the ocean where tourists ignore “the bickering spray.” Then at the center of this section, the poet indicates humanity’s choices: flight and escape—“Leap now/ and cease from error”—or acceptance, a turning shoreward, “accepting all—/ the losses and farewells,/ the long warfare with self,/ with God.” For the persona, reality itself becomes a dream, and he chooses to escape; he turns to leap, to cease from error, and in the next section, his heart turns heavenward in praise of pagan gods, followed by a section contrasting the Christian and pagan deities that coexist in the Mexican culture. The escape cannot last, however; the poet is inextricably tied to things of this world, and so in the sixth section, he finds himself back in the market, where he is surrounded by tourists and beggars, asking for charity while the fire-king god looks blankly on. The last section, “La Corrida,” contrasting bull and matador, sun and shadow, again suggests humanity’s awful power and dilemma; it is the poet’s own voice that now begs for charity, that all human beings be redeemed and delivered from what they are “yet cannot be” and from their past, all they know “and do not wish/ to know.”

“An Inference of Mexico” also employs Hayden’s two favorite images for the human predicament. The first is war. Superficially, “Locus” (from Figure of Time) also describes a landscape, and like “An Inference of Mexico,” it is rich in descriptive detail of flora and fauna, of people and events. The trees are those of “an illusionist,” however, and the human position in this world is one of antagonism: spies watch Hernando de Soto’s troops, runaways hide from Southern masters. Here nature thrives, but it thrives on spareness, nature itself doing what Hayden asks of humans: accepting a world that gives one less than one needs and more than one can often bear. The flowers “twist into grace”; the houses are symbols of dreams dying prolonged and painful deaths. The past remains, then, “adored and/ unforgiven.” It is not merely landscape, but “soulscape,” and this soulscape is a “battleground/ of warring shades whose weapons kill.”

Even in “On Lookout Mountain” (from Words in the Mourning Time), where the Civil War battleground has been converted into an unimportant tourist spot, where choices once daring and dangerous have become selections of souvenirs and trivia, the cries of Kilroy, like those of Civil War soldiers and even those of the present, are concentric. Although on one level the present insignificance contrasts with the momentous past, on another these developments are only versions of the same story; the cries of past generations remain audible in “the warfare of our peace.”

Flight and descent

The image that recurs most frequently throughout Hayden’s poetry, however, is flight, in tension with its opposite, descent, but also used as a pun for a further tension, the noun formed from both “to flee” and “to fly.” Descent, that transformation to something less, is a dangerous alternative to flight. In “The Dream,” Sinda, the dreamer, sinks to the ground at the end; in “The Performers,” the observer of the window washers stays with them in his imagination until he sees himself falling with no safety strap to hold him up. In “The Ballad of Nat Turner” (from A Ballad of Remembrance), it is the dream of falling angels that confirms Turner’s destructive but liberating vision. The poem that best exemplifies descent is “The Diver” (from Selected Poems). It opens with the diver sinking through the sea’s “easeful/ azure.” That descent is an escape from the present, with its warring shadows, its balances and choices. The creatures that the diver sees remind him of “lost images,” but he sinks beyond them. It is as “dreams of/ wingless flight.” The goal of this descent is a ship, but the treasures that the diver finds there are “voracious life.” As his flashlight probes “fogs of water,” everything seems eerie, a game of hide and seek. The diver’s longing is to throw off everything, to yield to the rapturous deep, “have/ done with self and/ every dinning/ vain complexity.” This deep, which once seemed so easeful, now becomes frenzied, canceling, numbing. Whether by reflex or by will, the persona begins to struggle. He escapes somehow, manages the “measured rise” to the surface. Like Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “The Diver” shows how restful the dark can seem, how the strange beauty of this deep and dark alternative can entice one to leave behind the promises and battles of one’s own disappointing world. Here, too, as in Frost’s poem, although with considerably more effort, the poet-persona rejects escape; ascent for the diver is only a return to the surface of life, but it is as difficult as the ascent in any of Hayden’s poems.

Another kind of escape may be fleeing—the flight, say, of an escaping slave, of another who flees a reality that certainly burdens and threatens to break him. This is the kind of escape that Hayden describes in “The Ballad of Sue Ellen Westerfield” or “Runagate Runagate” (both from A Ballad of Remembrance), an escape that is not the treacherous evasion of “The Diver” but the attempt to be free. The flight is thus a punning ascent, as in “Runagate Runagate,” where slaves rise “from their anguish and their power,” willing to be free. Sue Ellen Westerfield escapes slavery, a burning ship, and a white lover—all escapes that are necessary in her difficult attempt at freedom.

The final transformation, that which the soul aspires to and which the poet ultimately embraces, is what Hayden, in the title of his collected poems, calls “the angle of ascent.” Flight is, of course, a prominent motif in black literature. For Hayden it is the most important of all images, for it suggests not merely escape, but meaningful escape, not merely transformation, but transfiguration, so that present reality becomes an image of the perfect reality for which human beings long. In both poems about Daedalus, Hayden aptly uses this metaphor, and what the poet-personae do is rise. After their struggle, they achieve that angle of ascent in order to find a resting place where they are not at all alien. The treatment of the metaphor is sometimes less serious. In “Unidentified Flying Object” (UFO) (from Words in the Mourning Time), the main character seems to have climbed aboard a UFO, leaving her life in total disorder, her face “transformed” into something that the man observing her has never seen before. Although the poem ends with a hint that Mattie Lee may have suffered a darker fate, the ambiguous ending can only slightly modify the witty assertion of the earlier movement of the poem—an ascent that leaves behind radios and roasts, churches and suitors, gossips and sheriffs. In “’Summertime and the Living. . . .’” (from Figure of Time), the living is not easy, and the characters’ dreams and hopes contrast with the vividly depicted reality of their lives. The city dwellers find the summer a time for poor folks, when they can sit on stoops and talk, when they share their common dream, here a fantasy of Ethiopia, the Africa of remembered past and longed-for future, which spreads across them “her gorgeous wings.” Their lives, too, are for a moment “transformed by steeps of flight.”

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Robert Hayden American Literature Analysis


Hayden, Robert (Vol. 14)