Tradition, tension, in Hayden's verse


African-American poet resisted using forms of revolution, dissent

January 26, 2003|By Michael Collier

I used to be able to figure out exactly which semester and year of my undergraduate days it was that I took a class from Robert Hayden, who was a visiting writer at my school in the early '70s, but I have lost track of the pebbles of data that had helped me pinpoint it.

Instead, Hayden, who was legally blind, is located in a kind of eternal present: vivid to me in his glasses that are as thick and distorting of his eyes as a glass brick, holding the mimeographs of our poems so he could make out the faint, limp and pretentious lines of our verse. He had a slow way of talking that was beyond what we might think of as careful and considerate. With great affection, we called him, though not to his face, Moon Man, because there was something, not alien, but otherworldly and genuinely distracted about him.

For 30 years, he wrote in the kind of obscurity poets and artists assume as their fate, but Hayden's was even more obscure because he was black. He wrote in the rhymed stanzas and regularly metered lines that were not just the conventions of the times but also linked him back to the oldest of traditions in English poetry.

The younger poets of the Black Arts movement had criticized him for not adopting their conventions of free verse and for not employing overtly political themes in his poems. At the University of Michigan, where Hayden regularly taught, he had been publicly accused of toadyism, and denounced. As a result, in the last years of his life, as he began to receive recognition, he was isolated both from his country and his race.

It is a truism that while living, great poets are often misunderstood, if not always underappreciated, and this is certainly the case with Robert Hayden. Anyone reading his poems today cannot fail to see how profoundly and inextricably engaged they are with the issues and struggles of what it means to be African-American.

Part of the power of Hayden's poetry comes from the fact that he resisted using what were considered the forms of revolution and dissent. Instead, his use of traditional forms imbued with his experience as a black man creates a tension between form and content that is powerful and enduring. In recent years, "Those Winter Sundays" has become one of the best known and most widely anthologized poems of the English language.

Terrance Hayes is a young poet who teaches at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "For Robert Hayden" appears in his recently published second book, Hip Logic (Penguin, 2002). Hayes, who was born in 1971, pays homage to Hayden not only by echoing the form of "Those Winter Sundays" (both poems are sonnets), but also by way of a series of questions directed at the dead poet as he tries to imagine what it was like to be Robert Hayden.

Hayes' poem is not only a deep act of human empathy; it is also a model of how one generation learns from the preceding generation. Although poets are apt to learn their craft by imitating the forms and conventions handed down from the past, they find their way to their own voice by discovering poets of like temperament and tact.

Michael Collier is Maryland's poet laureate. "Poet's Corner" appears monthly in Arts & Society.

Those Winter Sundays

By Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, he'd call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

Of love's austere and lonely offices?

For Robert Hayden

By Terrance Hayes

Did your father come home after fighting

through the week at work? Did the sweat change

to salt in his ears? Was that bitter white

grain the only music he'd hear? Is this why

you were quiet when other poets sang

of the black man's beauty? Is this why

you choked on the tonsil of Negro Duty?

Were there as many offices for pain

as love? Should a black man never be shy?

Was your father a mountain twenty

shovels couldn't bury? Was he a train

leaving a lone column of smoke? Was he

a black magnolia singing at your feet?

Was he a blackjack smashed against your throat?

"For Robert Hayden" from Hip Logic (Penguin, 2002). Reprinted by permission of Terrance Hayes. "Those Winter Sundays" from Angle of Ascent: New and Collected Poems. Copyright c 1962 by Robert Hayden. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Corp.

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