Robert Hayden’s Collected Poems

Robert Hayden's Collected PoemsRobert Hayden was born Asa Bundy Sheffey, but when his parents felt ill prepared for the responsibilities of raising a child, he was taken in by a neighboring family, the Haydens. His foster parents made an earnest attempt at raising him well, but the strains of their relationship cast a grim pall on his childhood home. Congenitally poor vision kept him out of sports and forced upon him a pair of thick-lensed glasses that led to bullying and enhanced his sense of isolation as a black youth growing up in a predominantly white suburb of Michigan (as he put it, “grotesque outsider whose /unnaturalness / assures them they / are natural, they indeed / belong”) . He found his escape in reading, particularly poetry, where he found spiritual brothers in Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar and W. H. Auden.

Like so many black artists of the 20th century, the issue of race weighed heavily on him. On the one hand, the writings of poets like Cullen, Dunbar and Hughes connected him with a shared sense of suffering, a forced indignity that, while it could not be redeemed, could nonetheless be transcended through art. On the other hand, he claimed for himself the same freedom granted to any artist to depict what he saw fit, unrestricted by social, political or cultural obligations, and this insistence on his artistic integrity brought him into conflict with the burgeoning Black Power movement. To them, his refusal to conform to their mission made him, at best, an outmoded relic and, at worst, a traitor to his race. For his part, Hayden dismissed their worldview as chauvinistic and their poetry as mere propaganda. He wished to be a black poet “the way Yeats is an Irish poet,” meaning, presumably, that he would not shy from his heritage anymore than he would allow it to define him, and the scope of his poetry bears this out.

For technical achievement, Hayden’s verse must surely be among the most accomplished of all 20th century American poets, mixing aspects of the black vernacular with archaic words and phrases culled from poets of previous epochs or his readings in science, history and mythology to achieve a unique lyricism. He is rarely political but politics and history nonetheless pervade his poetry, an inevitable consequence of living in America in the middle of the 20th century; his project is rather a humanist one, a stance he reached after repudiating an early flirtation with communism. His “Words in the Mourning Time” begins in the historical – “For King, for Robert Kennedy, / destroyed by those they could not save, / for King for Kennedy I mourn. / And for America, self-destructive, self-betrayed” – and ends with a call to transcend the “monsters of abstraction”:

We must not be frightened nor cajoled
into accepting evil as deliverance from evil.
We must go on struggling to be human,
though monsters of abstraction
police and threaten us.

Reclaim now, now renew the vision of
a human world where godliness
is possible and man
is neither gook nigger honkey wop nor kike

but man

permitted to be man.

What does it mean to repudiate “evil as deliverance from evil”? Earlier verses make it clear he had in mind the “Clean-Cut Boys / From Decent American Homes” who were “slashing off enemy ears for keepsakes” in Vietnam, but it is equally implied that the “monsters of abstraction” are the racist epithets (“gook nigger honkey wop kike”) that, by the very act of reducing us to abstractions, prevent us from being human. Hayden’s method of resisting the violent abstractions threatening and policing him was to enrich his verse with the concrete, to force his reader to appreciate – even find beauty in – even the ugly aspects of humanity.