This collection of essays by leading critics and poets charts Robert Hayden’s growing reputation as a major writer of some of the twentieth century’s most important poems on African-American themes, including the famed “Middle Passage” and “Frederick Douglass.” The essays illuminate the themes and techniques that established Hayden as a modernist writer with affinities to T. S. Eliot, Federico Garcia Lorca, and W. B. Yeats, as well as to traditions of African-American writings that include such figures as Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes.
Robert Hayden: Essays on the Poetryis the first and only book to collect significant essays on this distinguished poet. Covering sixty years of commentary, book reviews, essays, and Hayden’s own published materials, this volume is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the poet’s vision of experience, artistry, and influence. The book includes forty different works that examine the life and poetry of Hayden, the first African-American to serve as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (the post now called Poet Laureate) and to receive the Grand Prix de la Poesie at the First World Festival of Negro Arts, Dakar, Senegal, in 1966.
About the Author
Laurence Goldstein is Professor of English at the University of Michigan. In addition to his criticism and poetry, Goldstein is widely respected for his work as editor of the Michigan Quarterly Review from 1977–2000. His books include Writing Ann Arbor: A Literary Anthology, The American Poet at the Movies: A Critical History, and the forthcoming Poetry Los Angeles: Reading the Essential Poems of the City.
Robert Chrisman (1937-2013) was a founding editor of The Black Scholar, a poet and a scholar. He was Professor and Chair of the Black Studies Department at the University of Nebraska, Omaha and also taught at the University of Michigan, Williams College, University of California Berkeley, University of Vermont, and Wayne State University.
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Essays on the Poetry
By Laurence Goldstein, Robert Chrisman
The University of Michigan PressCopyright © 2001 the University of Michigan
All rights reserved.
PART ONE The Poet's Voice
Statement on Poetics
From Modern and Contemporary Afro-American Poetry(Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1972), 175.
From a letter of December 1970: "Every poem I write is for me, in Whitman's phrase, a 'language experiment' and a process of discovery. I value form and rhythm as having an organic relationship to the theme of a poem. I am as much concerned with the sounds and textures of words as I am with their meanings. I write slowly and painstakingly; often work on a poem several years, revising even after publication. Irony together with symbolism modified by realism are, I suppose, characteristic features of my poetry. I think of the writing of poems as one way of coming to grips with inner and outer realities — as a spiritual act, really, a sort of prayer for illumination and perfection. The Bahá'í Faith, with its emphasis on the essential oneness of mankind and its vision of world unity, is an increasingly powerful influence on my poetry today — and the only one to which I willingly submit."
Entrances and Tableaux for Josephine Baker
[an unfinished draft]
From Michigan Quarterly Review 31, no. 3 (Summer 1992): 318–20.
We see her in the next to final scene
standing at the rainbow's end,
Maya's darling still, and know the gold
is real and all else brummagem.
Once at the Casino de Paris
she made her entrance — face agleam
with diamond dust — descending invisible stairs
whose treads unfolded to receive
each glittering step just when it seemed
that she must plunge through light and music
to her death. Her Parisians gasped and cheered;
such calculated risk exalted her;
she sang J'ai deux amours, as now
she sings it, grown old and ageless,
triumphant in the sortilege of an art
fleeting as rainbow fire, as durable.
Oh, let us talk of happy things,
she cried in those last years
of her unhappiness, oh cherish, mon ami,
illusions, do not look too close,
believe in fairy tales and let us write
our own. By then the castle, rainbow
children — alas, for all my hopes
of human brotherhood — the exotic animals
in their diamond collars, the gold
all all was gone, had ended like
an idiot's tale. Whom had she offended,
God? Yet she had served Him in her way.
J'ai deux amours, one France and one
America, one had betrayed and one
had rejected her like some slavey stepchild.
Where then was La Belle France
that bitter day she never could quite
believe or understand when the ruffians came
to drag her from her fairy house foreclosed
and with vile names strike her down?
Where were de Gaulle, the Maquisards
with whom she braved the villains
of the Iron Cross? She had all
but died for France. But now her medals
were auctioned off as she lay in the mud.
There is no hope, she said, no hope
for France or anywhere. How could such things
happen here to me? I do not understand
the world any more. Why do we hate
each other so? My God, my God, I tried,
you know, as foster-mother to a brood
of homeless kids, to point a better way.
My rainbow children, ah, but they grew up
to call me whore; I gave them love
but failed. Was my love but vanity?
But let us talk no more today of trouble.
I am still Josephine, mon cher, these
fires have not consumed me, for I
am phoenix now, no longer bird of paradise.
Wait for me here. I'll climb those steps again.
Let down from the flies in gilt
baskets of cabbage roses, dancing
in ermined nudity from a Russian
Easter egg, borne upon hypnotic
mirrors by silverblack Nubians —
O Josephine O la Belle Sauvage
Dancing le Charleston le Blackbottom
singing whirling glittering to le jazz hot
L'Africane in jungle jewels by Cartier.
Baudelaire's ghost sighs in the wings,
Ah mon amour, fleur du mal retrouvée.
O washerwoman's daughter
from East St. Louis (and don't you forget it,
mes amis) walking her cheetahs on a diamond
leash vamping Vedette Americaine, conjure woman
with pranking familiars
Huckleberry Finn and Nigger Jim and
the voodoo empress Marie Laveau.
They laugh and bless her antic style, with sensuous
mockery, with something poignant
as down-home blues....
Ballad of the True Beast ROBERT HAYDEN
From The Night-Blooming Cereus (1975).
Enormous and greedily vicious. Four
snapping heads. Reptilian
body exuding ichor of evil. Here
lurking. There hiding....
So the rumors went, the Stranger said.
Relishing the worst, our villagers
believed. A few achieved status with tales
of how narrowly they'd escaped it.
At first-dark returning from work
in town one evening, we saw it,
my friend and I, at the edge of the
pine-grove: beast-like child-like,
vaguely charming, if grotesque.
And oh it was just as frightened
as we were. So nervous. Yet nodded its head
to us in apparent greeting,
its four-tiered crown — all
chime and sparkle — tumbling
off in the process. It scooped up
the crown, murmured, skedaddled.
Not a soul in the village believed
our story. Indeed, how could we
prove it? They gave us the haha in the streets
and taverns, wrote us threatening
letters. More loutish than ever before —
or so it appeared — they fed and
fattened the rumors like household pets.
But worse much worse, the Stranger
said — we ourselves, this friend
and I, fell to quarrelling
over what each of us had seen —
and soon were bosom enemies.
An Interview with Dennis Gendron ROBERT HAYDEN
From "Robert Hayden: A View of His Life and Development as a Poet" (Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina, 1975).
What follows are excerpts from a long interview conducted by Dennis Gendron at Connecticut College on 16–19 March 1974, and appended to Professor Gendron's dissertation on Hayden's poetry.
HAYDEN: [I wrote a character-poem] about Prophet Jones ("Witch-Doctor"), because there is a kind of drama there — even a kind of mystery. There is something there for the imagination to work on. When I say there is an element of mystery, I have to repeat myself on that because I think that is precisely what I feel. I am trying to think of some of the people I have written about. I like to write about people, it must be clear to you. I like to write about people who, to put it in a trite way, whose reality belies the superficial appearance. Like the woman in "Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves," who is really a composite of people that I knew at firsthand or read about or saw on the stage when I was a young person. And I had a certain distance from those kinds of people. ... There are all kinds of people, and there are all sorts of dramatic possibilities. Well, for the reasons I have given, there is a kind of mystery — there is something that lies beneath the appearance they present. I like to try to find what it is that gives them their unique and special qualities.
* * *
You said you were very religious, if not in an organized, churchly way. It seems to me that at times you have a frightening religion. For example, you have healing spirits in some of your poems, but the healing spirit doesn't seem to be tied in with your conception of God. Your conception of God most of the time seems very frightening, as in the world created in "Mirages." There is no healing spirit in that particular poem; all you have is the stranger at the end who fools you. That seems to be the kind of view that you have very often of what reality is like.
Well, it's because I am struggling toward belief and faith all the time. I am struggling with my own inner devils all the time, and we shall get to them, if not on the tape recorder, because I think we should be honest. So you can get certain clues you may or may not use; I don't care. But I am struggling, working toward being a believer. There is the part of my mind and the part of my being, part of my is-ness or my what-ness, that is convinced that there is transcendence, that there is a spiritual dimension and there is God, and that we do have obligations to God and that there is a divine plan for the world and so on. At the same time, there is the other side of me that finds it very hard to accept that, that finds it very hard to believe. And so I struggle with it. And I expressed it in a new poem that I hope to write and hope to finish. I have a persona in the poem who is really me speaking, and he says words to the effect that religion is a hair shirt. And in my own life it comforts me, but it harrows my soul at the same time. There is always a feeling of unworthiness on my part and the feeling that I am not living up to what I believe as a Bahá'í; yet I believe it, and I am getting blocked. That's all I can say about that.
I don't doubt anything. I am not a hypocrite, and that's one of those things that bothers me. I want to be honest; I won't lie to myself. I sometimes shy away from talking about religion and certainly shy away from writing about it sometimes because I am sure there are those people who would think, "He is a terrible hypocrite: he talks one way and acts another." But there is a kind of dualism in me. I feel sometimes as though, because I was pulled between two families, two sets of parents, that I have to this hour remained a divided person. One of my problems has been to make myself a whole person, and my faith has helped me to a certain extent. But then there is a point where I am not mature enough, I am not wise enough, to understand it fully so that it really could be a healing or unifying element in my life.
* * *
Where did you get the title Heart-Shape in the Dust?
From Elinor Wylie. When I was young, I was much influenced by her. I willfully, consciously, submitted to her influence because she was such an exquisite craftsman. She is forgotten today, and she shouldn't be because she wrote some exquisite poems — marvelous craftsmanship — and I was much influenced by her.
* * *
Yeats is also, obviously, a great influence on you. Is that because he is a kindred spirit?
Oh, yes, very much so. I keep a picture that Betsy [Graves Reyneau] made, a portrait of Yeats, a charcoal sketch, which, like all her work, is in the National Portrait Gallery. She gave me a photograph of her Yeats, and I had it framed. It sits in my room, and I look at it and wonder how he would feel about me. Yeats's life more than his poetry has had an influence on me. Yeats struggled with many of the things I have had to come to grips with: he struggled with being an artist and with being a man, and it's his approach to life, to these things, that I admire.
Your "Lear Is Gay" is a rather hopeful poem. But Lear is a fictional character, which is the point of Yeats's "Lapis Lazuli." Lady Gregory, Maud Gonne, those shrill women at the beginning of "Lapis Lazuli" — they cannot cope with reality; the people who cope with reality are Lear and Hamlet and the Chinamen, all make-believe characters.
Yes, but I hadn't thought of that. What I thought of was the fact of these old men and Lear in old age, having lost everything yet being able to see beyond that: finally seeing what reality is. That's what I had in mind. I always felt that life is a struggle. I used to say to students, "Living is the hardest thing you are going to have to do." They used to laugh and say, "What an old campus character," not knowing from what depth of feeling and suffering that had come. Living is the hardest thing you can do, and I always had that sense. And I think I have wrung a certain kind of affirmation and a certain kind of faith out of things that were really negative and troublesome, maybe. But I had to make an effort to do it.
* * *
With this kind of vision and your idealism, and the way you manipulate images to emphasize life's struggle, do you think that you are primarily an ironist as a poet?
Maybe so, because I respond. That's another reason I have written about the people that are in my book. Yes, I respond to irony and consider myself something of an ironist. If I were more intellectual (and I am not apologizing, because I don't want to be that intellectual), but if I were more intellectual, I perhaps would be more of an ironist because it is, after all, a kind of intellectual movement. But I am aware of irony all the time. Life is shot through with ironies, and I think that if you have a sense of the dramatic then you have a sense of the ironical.
* * *
That "Mystery Boy" in Nashville who was searching for kin seems to be a kind of Robert Hayden.
Oh, that's me, kid, looking for love. The original, the prototype of mystery boy, was a young woman. Yeah, that's definitely autobiographical.
* * *
You seem to use everything that's a part of your experience. You have classical references because obviously classicism is a part of your background. You take from Yeats, Pound, and people like that because they are part of your background. You are not an average black poet. But, by being called a black poet, is that limiting? Do you think that's less than being a poet or more than being a poet?
Well, right now in America it has pejorative implications. Now I am trying to, I think, reach the point where I am finally indifferent to designations. I don't care whether I am called a poet or a black poet or whatever because I know in my own heart what I am. I think of myself as being a poet. I am afraid today that black poet carries the implication, has the connotation, that the poet is interested in one kind of thing and that he closes his mind upon the world and concentrates on the ethnocentric. I would hope that in time we will get away from that. I feel that black poet means you are overspecialized, you are concerned with one kind of thing, one kind of experience.
Does this bother you? The rest of the question I am trying to set up to indicate what your response should be. Does it bother you when a poem upon a subject that uses black history or black folklore, that really has universal application, to see that application stopped simply with its black implication?
Indeed so, and I have tried to write — early, before we were talking in terms of this nonsense, when I wrote "Middle Passage," for example — I tried to make that poem transcend narrow, racial, propagandistic implications. That's why I am very careful to allude to John Quincy Adams. And I wasn't conscious of this; I just did it because that's the way I am, because that's how I felt about things. I make it very clear that the black kings were in collusion with the traders. I feel that many people — I don't like to think in terms of black-and-white but you have to sometimes in this age — I think many white people put blinders on and read a poem by a Negro poet and would like to think it has no implications for them, that it's limited to the so-called black experience. But you are absolutely right. I think I always wanted to be a Negro poet or a black poet or an Afro-American poet — we'll use all the terms and be done with it — the same way Yeats is an Irish poet. To me this is what I learned from Yeats. This is what Yeats means to me. Yeats did not flinch from using materials from Irish experience, Irish myths. The whole Irish struggle has meaning for Yeats. He would have been astonished if anyone had told him to forget that he was Irish and just write his poetry. But he wrote as a poet; and I am not Irish, but I could read Yeats's poems, such as "Easter 1916," and relate to it. When I was teaching at Terre Haute one summer, teaching a course in contemporary poetry — it was right after the Detroit riots — I remember going to class one morning; we were working on Yeats, and we had that poem "Easter 1916." I began to read the poem and could not go on reading it: the tears welled up. I remember my old nun, who came to me after class and said, "We know exactly what you feel." It was a very moving experience reading that poem after the Detroit riots. Well, Yeats didn't write that poem for me particularly, but that is the kind of poetry I want to write. Yes, it may reflect a certain kind of experience, a certain kind of awareness, but it's human rather than racial. It speaks to other human beings, and it's not limited by time and place and not limited by the ethnic.
Excerpted from Robert Hayden by Laurence Goldstein, Robert Chrisman. Copyright © 2001 the University of Michigan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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Table of Contents
Part One: The Poet's Voice,
Part Two: Reviews,
Part Three: General Essays,
Part Four: Essays on Individual Poems,