by Nona Blyth Cloud
A human being is made up of all the experiences of a lifetime — sometimes a few carelessly spoken words, long forgotten by the speaker, can change the course of the hearer’s life forever.
I do not know if this was the case with poet Robert Hayden (1913-1980), but for a small boy in a poor neighborhood to be so near-blind that he must wear “coke-bottle” glasses which prevented him from joining in active play, I can imagine that he carried scars from the unthinking cruelty of children toward anyone who is “different.”
Add that he was raised, not by his parents who had split up after his birth, but by a couple who frequently quarreled, and his name was changed from Asa Bundy Sheffey to Robert Hayden. His adoptive mother did fight for his right to attend classes for the partially sighted, but poverty limited the resources available to him. He learned to read holding books inches from his face.
A picture emerges of a lonely child, who finds his friends in books, which is fertile ground for development of a depth of imagination and a love of words.
At age 23, he became a researcher for the Federal Writers Project, and spent his time there researching black American history and folk life, which became recurring themes in his poetry. In 1940, he married Erma Morris, and converted to his wife’s religion — the Baha’i faith — shortly after their marriage. This also greatly influenced his work, and he helped to publicize the little-known religion. However, his reputation as a writer is based much more on his poems about the African-American experience, both historically and personally.
Hayden wrote: “I have said many, many times no place is home. Therefore, in a sense because I don’t have a home anywhere, in a sense everyplace is home.” His view of the world was that of the dispossessed outsider, but it gave him a rare empathy with the subjects of his poems.
The Ballad of Nat Turner
Then fled, O brethren, the wicked juba
…..and wandered wandered far
from curfew joys in the Dismal’s night.
……Fool of St. Elmo’s fire
In scary night I wandered, praying,
……Lord God my harshener,
speak to me now or let me die;
……speak, Lord, to this mourner.
And came at length to livid trees
……where Ibo warriors
hung shadowless, turning in wind
……that moaned like Africa,
Their belltongue bodies dead, their eyes
……alive with the anger deep
in my own heart. Is this the sign,
……the sign forepromised me?
The spirits vanished. Afraid and lonely
……I wandered on in blackness.
Speak to me now or let me die.
……Die, whispered the blackness.
And wild things gasped and scuffled in
……the night; seething shapes
of evil frolicked upon the air.
……I reeled with fear, I prayed.
Sudden brightness clove the preying
……darkness, brightness that was
itself a golden darkness, brightness
……so bright that it was darkness.
And there were angels, their faces hidden
……from me, angels at war
with one another, angels in dazzling
……combat. And oh the splendor,
The fearful splendor of that warring.
……Hide me, I cried to rock and bramble.
Hide me, the rock, the bramble cried. . . .
……How tell you of that holy battle?
The shock of wing on wing and sword
……on sword was the tumult of
a taken city burning. I cannot
……say how long they strove,
For the wheel in a turning wheel which is time
……in eternity had ceased
its whirling, and owl and moccasin,
……panther and nameless beast
And I were held like creatures fixed
……in flaming, in fiery amber.
But I saw I saw oh many of
……those mighty beings waver,
Waver and fall, go streaking down
……into swamp water, and the water
hissed and steamed and bubbled and locked
……shuddering shuddering over
The fallen and soon was motionless.
……Then that massive light
began a-folding slowly in
……upon itself, and I
Beheld the conqueror faces and, lo,
……they were like mine, I saw
they were like mine and in joy and terror
……wept, praising praising Jehovah.
Oh praised my honer, harshener
……till a sleep came over me,
a sleep heavy as death. And when
……I awoke at last free
And purified, I rose and prayed
……and returned after a time
to the blazing fields, to the humbleness.
……And bided my time.
(“honer” is a fine-grained hard stone for sharpening blades)
Here, he images the fear and desperation of runaway slaves, and the iron courage of Harriet Tubman, the most famous “Underground Railroad Conductor” of them all.
Runs falls rises stumbles on from darkness into darkness
and the darkness thicketed with shapes of terror
and the hunters pursuing and the hounds pursuing
and the night cold and the night long and the river
to cross and the jack-muh-lanterns beckoning beckoning
and blackness ahead and when shall I reach that somewhere
morning and keep on going and never turn back and keep on going
Many thousands rise and go
many thousands crossing over
………………………………………O mythic North
……………………………..O star-shaped yonder Bible city
Some go weeping and some rejoicing
some in coffins and some in carriages
some in silks and some in shackles
……………Rise and go or fare you well
No more auction block for me
no more driver’s lash for me
…..If you see my Pompey, 30 yrs of age,
…..new breeches, plain stockings, negro shoes;
…..if you see my Anna, likely young mulatto
…..branded E on the right cheek, R on the left,
…..catch them if you can and notify subscriber.
…..Catch them if you can, but it won’t be easy.
…..They’ll dart underground when you try to catch them,
…..plunge into quicksand, whirlpools, mazes,
…..turn into scorpions when you try to catch them.
And before I’ll be a slave
I’ll be buried in my grave
…..North star and bonanza gold
…..I’m bound for the freedom, freedom-bound
…..and oh Susyanna don’t you cry for me
Rises from their anguish and their power,
………………………..woman of earth, whipscarred,
………………………..a summoning, a shining
………………………..Mean to be free
…..And this was the way of it, brethren brethren,
…..way we journeyed from Can’t to Can.
…..Moon so bright and no place to hide,
…..the cry up and the patterollers riding,
…..hound dogs belling in bladed air.
…..And fear starts a-murbling, Never make it,
…..we’ll never make it. Hush that now,
…..and she’s turned upon us, levelled pistol
…..glinting in the moonlight:
…..Dead folks can’t jaybird-talk, she says;
…..you keep on going now or die, she says.
Wanted…..Harriet Tubman…..alias The General
alias Moses…..Stealer of Slaves
In league with Garrison…..Alcott…..Emerson
Armed and known to be Dangerous
Wanted…..Reward…..Dead or Alive
…..Tell me, Ezekiel, oh tell me do you see
…..mailed Jehovah coming to deliver me?
Hoot-owl calling in the ghosted air,
five times calling to the hants in the air.
Shadow of a face in the scary leaves,
shadow of a voice in the talking leaves:
….. Come ride-a my train
…..Oh that train, ghost-story train
…..through swamp and savanna movering movering,
…..over trestles of dew, through caves of the wish,
…..Midnight Special on a sabre track movering movering,
…..first stop Mercy and the last Hallelujah.
…..Come ride-a my train
……….Mean mean mean to be free.
Gazing out of the eyes of the adult poet is the lonely child within, a boyhood Robert looking up at a hero worthy of his admiration.
When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.
During the turbulent years of the Civil Rights Movement, Robert Hayden was still the outsider. He refused to call himself a black writer, insisting that he was an American writer, and should not be typed solely by his racial heritage. At a time when “Black is beautiful!” was a battle-cry, this put him out of favor.
Even during his conflict with other black writers who viewed their art primarily as a tool for political agitation, when Hayden’s volume Selected Poems was published in 1966, the nation’s literary critics finally took notice. Ten years later, he was appointed as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, the first African American to be so honored.
It is hard to trace his development as a writer, since he frequently discarded or completely re-worked his earlier poems, so that much of what is in his Collected Poems represents only his mature work. But that lonely child still peers out of this later work, if you pay attention.
This poem, from his last book, American Journal, takes us with Hayden and other poets into a prison for a poetry reading.
Steel doors – guillotine gates –
of the doorless house closed massively.
We were locked in with loss.
Guards frisked us, marked our wrists,
then let us into the drab Rec Hall –
splotched green walls, high windows barred –
where the dispossessed awaited us.
Hands intimate with knife and pistol,
hands that had cruelly grasped and throttled
clasped ours in welcome. I sensed the plea
of men denied: Believe us human
like yourselves, who but for Grace …
We shared reprieving Hidden Words
revealed by the Godlike imprisoned
One, whose crime was truth.
And I read poems I hoped were true.
It’s like you been there, brother, been there,
the scarred young lifer said.
Robert Hayden’s art was both the home he made for himself, and his hand outstretched to all the world.
Sources and Further Reading
- “The Ballad of Nat Turner” from A Ballad of Remembrance, Paul Breman (London) © 1962, 1966 by Robert Hayden, © 1985 by Emma Hayden
- “Runagate Runagate” from Collected Poems, © 1962, 1966 by Robert Hayden, © 1985 by Emma Hayden, Liveright Publishing http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/237678
- “Frederick Douglass” from Collected Poems of Robert Hayden, edited by Frederick Glaysher – © 1966 by Robert Hayden, Liveright Publishing
- “The Prisoners” from American Journal, © 1978 by Robert Hayden, Liveright Publishing — http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/robert_hayden/poems/4402
Biography and Career
- Bio – Robert Earl Hayden
- Modern American Poetry: Robert Hayden’s Epic of Community — by Benjamin Friedlander
- RE: The Black Spear
- About Hayden’s Life and Career —http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/hayden/life.htm
- Robert Hayden was made poet laureate of Senegal in 1966
- Federal Writers’ Project, Detroit, MI, researcher, 1936-40; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, teaching fellow, 1944-46; Fisk University, Nashville, TN, 1946-69, began as assistant professor, became professor of English; University of Michigan, professor of English, 1969-80. Bingham Professor, University of Louisville, 1969; visiting poet, University of Washington, 1969, University of Connecticut, 1971, and Denison University, 1972. Member, Michigan Arts Council, 1975-76; Consultant in Poetry, Library of Congress, 1976-78.
- Heart-Shape in the Dust,Falcon Press (Detroit), 1940.
- (With Myron O’Higgins)The Lion and the Archer, Hemphill Press (Nashville), 1948.
- Figure of Time: Poems,Hemphill Press, 1955.
- A Ballad of Remembrance,Paul Breman (London), 1962.
- Selected Poems,October House, 1966.
- Words in the Mourning Time,October House, 1970.
- The Night-Blooming Cereus,Paul Breman, 1972.
- Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems,Liveright, 1975.
- American Journal,limited edition, Effendi Press, 1978, enlarged edition, Liveright, 1982.
- Robert Hayden: Collected Poems,edited by Frederick Glaysher, Liveright, 1985, with an introduction by Arnold Rampersad, Liveright, 1996.
- (Editor and author of introduction)Kaleidoscope: Poems by American Negro Poets (juvenile), Harcourt, 1967.
- (With others)Today’s Poets (recording), Folkways, 1967.
- (Author of preface) Alain LeRoy Locke, editor,The New Negro, Atheneum, 1968.
- (Editor with David J. Burrows and Frederick R. Lapides)Afro-American Literature: An Introduction, Harcourt, 1971.
- (Editor with James Edwin Miller and Robert O’Neal)The United States in Literature, Scott, Foresman, 1973, abridged edition published as The American Literary Tradition, 1607-1899,
- (Contributor)The Legend of John Brown, Detroit Institute of Arts, 1978.
- Collected Prose,edited by Glaysher, University of Michigan Press, 1984.
Contributor to periodicals, including Atlantic, Negro Digest, and Midwest Journal. Drama and music critic, Michigan Chronicle, late 1930s.
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud