In the Noise of the Whirlwind: Robert Hayden
"This is the urgency. Live!
and have your blooming in the noise of the whirlwind."
"In the Mecca," Gwendolyn Brooks
LeRoi Jones in 1967 via Nathaniel Mackey in 1994 on solo by saxophonist John Tchicai on an Archie Shepp album: "It slides away from the proposed."
"The reading was poorly attended, and those present were more
interested in talking race than in discussing poetry."
Letter from Robert Hayden to Michael Harper, March 1975
"...you've got the greater poems still in you waiting to be written."
Letter from Michael Harper at 35 to Robert Hayden at 60, November 1. 1973
A Collected Poems is often where a searching reader from one time meets the poet of another; it can be a place to study the vexed and vexing means by which a culture looks among its poems and decides what's worth keeping, when the distracting noise of the present has at least partly retreated. Since Collecteds are often not made by their poets, they can be a good way to study not only the range and flavor of a poet's power--how he slides away from the proposed, as a young Amiri Baraka might have put it--as Gwendolyn Brooks might have put it, how she blooms--but also the nature of the contending powers framing the time in which he lived, how these powers impeded or enabled him, how they pressed on him and influenced what he did and did not make.
A twenty-first-century searcher might find some puzzlements in the Collected Poems of Robert Hayden; the collection begins with A Ballad of Remembrance, published in 1962, when Hayden was forty-nine, and the first three of Hayden's eight individual poetry volumes are not represented. In the introduction, Arnold Rampersad points out that Hayden called his first published poems "'prentice pieces," and specifies that in the early work "strains of a socialist esthetic, as well as of a far more traditional approach to art, coexist uneasily," although 'socialist' would likely be far from the top of the list of terms that might cross this book's reader's mind. A Collected Poems often provides a portrait of a life's work completed, of given powers spent; with Hayden's Collected there's a curious sense of powers hidden, of a letter to the future with parts redacted, of something left undone.
Half the Collected comes from two books, A Ballad of Remembrance and Words in the Mourning Time; all Hayden's widely anthologized poems are here, the resonant portraits of "Homage to the Empress of the Blues" and "Frederick Douglass," the inventive collages of "Runagate Runagate" and "Middle Passage," the vivid, quiet musics of "Those Winter Sundays." These are two books born of the 1960s, the second time this poet and his age-mates passed through a time in this country that raised the questions and furies of what some might call revolution. If the esthetic Rampersad calls "traditional" might also be called "capitalist," it tends to focus on the individual ("There is no such thing as society," in the memorable words of Margaret Thatcher), and on art as a stream that flows from him outward, and "makes nothing happen," in the words of WH Auden, Hayden's beloved teacher. An esthetic called "socialist" might also be called "traditional," in the sense Chinua Achebe articulates in "The Writer and His Community," focused less on individuals than on the social fabric we constitute, and on art as a stream that flows from deep beyond-human mystery and power, and when we're lucky passes through trained human hands, mouths, eyes and ears along the way. A revolutionary time tends to look back through what a culture has lost or rejected, in search of rhe materials required to make something new; as did the 1930s, the 1960s asked deep questions of the esthetic that might be called "capitalist" or "traditional" or "individualist," depending on one's perspective, and in the two books Hayden made in the decade's whirlwind you can hear him encountering these questions, both answering them and turning them away.
Hayden's Collected sounds its first note with "The Diver": "Sank through easeful/azure," it begins, with that adjective Keats used to describe being half in love with death. If what Rampersad calls a socialist esthetic is seen less in the light of the rigid prescriptions of Soviet Socialist Realism and more in the light of Achebe's village's emphasis on the social, it focuses on the art not of an individual but of a community; if the individual esthetic's bias is toward freedom, the social esthetic's bias is toward life. A community provides not only sustenance but restriction, both in the name of furthering not primarily freedom but survival; "Live!" Gwendolyn Brooks writes in 1968's "In the Mecca," while Hayden begins with a desire to "yield to rapturous/whisperings,have/done with self and/every dinning/vain complexity," a poem making its way through a shipwreck of corpses, and the bewilderment of longing to join them.
Aldon Lynn Nielsen has written powerfully about "frozen metaphors within American speech," in which "the fiction of the nonwhite" is built and perpetuated in white American discourse, as a way to avoid what he calls "the working out of the nation's unpaid debt," which might involve labors like "the dismantling of the racist apparatus of American verse"; one of these complexes of frozen metaphors revolves around drowned black bodies, one of the few forms in which African-Americans in the poetry of TS Eliot or Hart Crane are likely to appear. In "The Diver," it's as if this distorting pressure is pressing on the poem, cropping its lines into cryptic stammers, pressing particularity like the poem's beginning into a blur of plurals, into the "lost images/fadingly remembered" of cliché. In a 1972 interview, Hayden included this poem among "some that I've consciously made rather obscure, ambiguous, because they are deeply personal, touch on aspects of my life and experience I'm not about to share with the public--directly, that is"; instead of particulars he offers what another poem calls "Approximations," letting the vividness of his language suffer ("In dead of winter/wept beside your open grave./Falling snow") (or in "Belsen, Day of Liberation," "Her parents and her dolls destroyed") as he threads his way among the dangers posed by his listeners, imagined from various angles to be reiterating the Biblical message "Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin" in "Electrical Storm": "Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting."
If the title "Night, Death, Mississippi" points again toward the risk of running aground on the rock of cliché, the poem itself chooses instead the hard place of literal horror; where the Belsen poem skirts, this poem particularizes, "The old man in his reek/and gauntness laughs," and the life returns to the textures and cadences of the language, as if the pact with privateness has been broken and that river of power seeking human expression returns. "She cursed the circumstance," the previous poem ends, keeping the false composures that blurred language permits; "Then we beat them, he said," permits something else, the power of nothing witheld from public sharing, which breaks into the powers Hayden will use later in poems like "Middle Passage" and "Runagate Runagate," allowing other voices to interrupt and contend, following the course not of one voice but of at least two, one of psychotic violence--"Christ, it was better/than hunting bear"--and one of mourning sentience--"O night betrayed by darkness not its own"--each of which might be heard less as the voice of an individual than as the voice of a people.
The resilience and persistence of these racist tropes--as Nielsen calls it, "the racial prison house of language"--appears again even as Hayden begins to escape from their pressure; "darkness" here is divided between the embrace of the earthly night and the word English provides to describe the state of this murderous white man's soul. It's a palpable relief to jump the page away from the United States and into "An Inference of Mexico," where Hayden seems able to let his full powers unfold, the skies here not "blue" or "light" or "dark" but "intense as voyeur's gazing," the blurred world of "Flower/creatures flashed and/shimmered there--" set aside for "the barbarous multifoliate sea." It's as if Lorca's duende has stepped in provide the powers of what Nathaniel Mackey has called "the black aesthetic of Spain"; but then in the next poem, "A Ballad of Remembrance," back in the poet's native land, the landscape again transmits distress, the streets of New Orleans "like fans of corrosion," relieved by an unexpected visitor: "Then you arrived, meditative, ironic,/richly human," as if the preceding has embodied qualities other than these, "and your presence was shore where I rested/released from the hoodoo of that dance, where I spoke/with my true voice again."
At the end of the poem, the visitor is named, and the poem dedicated to him, this poem struggling to balance the "arcane" "archaic" city and its constant affiliations with death beside "Mark Van Doren," who a visitor from the future might note was a genial writer, critic, and teacher, who said among other things, "No poet ever talks about feelings," in addition to being white. After "You kids fetch Paw/some water now so's he/can wash that blood/off him" ("Night, Death, Misssissippi"), he's the Collected's first 'you'; he's also clearly and without much explanation a man the poet loves.
In his introduction, Rampersad notes that Pontheolla Taylor Williams "has identified homoeroticism and bisexuality--which Hayden never publicly acknowledged--as a troubling source of guilt and shame for the poet"; Rampersad adds, "For an individual of Hayden's professional standing in the African-American community, confessionalism that would reveal such interests was virtually not an option." Through this lens we can look again at "The Diver" and guess more than the poem's blurs can reveal about those "faces. I yearned to/find those hidden/ones, to fling aside/the mask and call to them,/yield to rapturous whisperings," faces that require some decoding if one is lucky enough to live in a time where such identities and longings might not automatically be linked to death. Then more of the brutal terms hedging Hayden's life begin to become clear, as art demands a "sliding away from the proposed" that social conventions forbid articulating.
They're the same terms that brutally framed the makers of spirituals and the blues and jazz, as they threaded their ways among the murderous prohibitions to make art both defying those terms and inseparable from them--the same terms that framed the life of someone like Langston Hughes, whose Collected Poems does not ache with the hidden or the unsaid. It's possible that life and art are pitiless and capricious and that some artists find a way to full expression and some don't; it's also possible that none of these artists just mentioned seem kept from their full powers because they did not confine themselves to an individual esthetic, nor think of art as something that was theirs to confess or conceal, to feel proud or ashamed of. Whether through racial identity or Left politics or both, they drew on the powers of that social esthetic Chinua Achebe describes, which associates death and danger not with multiplicity or sexuality or darkness but with, as Meridel Le Sueur memorably put it in 1935, "this maggotty individualism of a merchant society."
Hayden's strongest poems draw on this communal esthetic, as suspicious as he remained of its orthodoxies and simple-mindednesses and constrictions; the Collected's first "us" appears in "Homage to the Empress of the Blues," where he applies himself again to the labor of reconciling the gaudinesses and terrors of ghetto life with the beauty that might also be born from it. Those "alarming fists of snow on the door" were ones he knew intimately, and he tried to put as much distance between them and his own life as he could; but the poem describes them not in individual but communal terms, and recognizes that "because" there were those who feared as he feared, "She came out on the stage in ostrich feathers, beaded satin,/and shone that smile on us and sang."
His portraits seem often of what he admired and felt he lacked; Bessie Smith in this shy man's rendering strides unashamed into the spotlight, "emerging like/a favorite scenic view"; Frederick Douglass is a fighting man described by a gentle one, "superb in love and logic," as seen by this poet so torn in matters of love, hobbled in his every learning toward ringing statement by the illogical irreconcilable particulars he couldn't help but see. The meditative calms him, and "the hoodoo of that dance" provides both anxiety and the ground where he finds his "true voice again"; the power of the poem for Frederick Douglass comes from its articulation of the terms of lack, of torment, the opening "When it is finally ours" paralleling the Bessie Smith poem's opening "Because there was a man somewhere." In his essay on duende, Nathaniel Mackey talks about the parts of that esthetic that correspond to African and syncretic Américan religions in which a worshipper is possessed, "ridden": "One has worked beyond oneself," he says. "It is as if the language itself takes over." The spiritual tradition that formed one of the axes of Hayden's life was rooted not in possession but in meditative calm; but Hayden's most powerful poems exist on other terms, where the "gaudy mumbo jumbo" doesn't belong to New Orleans but to "politicians," where the fragmented stammered quotations of "Runagate, Runagate" move into registers of expression not available through composure. When "the news from Selma and Saigon" torments this poet, he longs for Monet's "Waterlilies"; but whatever forces are in charge of the powers of poetry see to it that this longing has left us less living poetic evidence than his longing for freedom has.
In the 1970s, Hayden and Michael Harper maintained a close friendship and correspondence, sustaining each other as poets, the younger Harper often encouraging the disconsolate Hayden that his best work lay ahead of him. They commiserated over the discomfort of having young black men appear at their readings demanding what Harper called in one letter "street pontification," in another "the black theoreticians stormtrooping but also goose-stepping right smack-dab up to a stone wall." Hayden wrote about a reading at Syracuse in 1975, "some Bloods tried to badger me, but I refused to be intimidated by them."
These poets and these particular readers weren't divided by race, but by differences in these matters of esthetics; their divisions were sharpened by the surrounding arrangements of power, the same ones that wanted to know why Elizabeth Bishop did not want to be considered a woman poet but a poet, the ones that did not ask John Berryman to articulate his position as a white heterosexual man more explicitly or ask why he wasn't writing poems in support of the revolution. The audiences that are turning to Hayden's work now with interest and gratitude are young people who may not have experienced the contradictions between these esthetics as sharply as Hayden did, who are looking for ways to keep the individual esthetic's emphasis on freedom of personal expression beside the communal esthetic's broadenings of identity, allegiance, and technical possibility.
Sometimes, in a given village, in ways Robert Hayden suffered, an audience may respond to the self-evident, to the easy, and turn away from the subtle and complex; with an artist like John Coltrane, an audience might warm first less to the art than to the man, demonstrating even through incomprehension their willingness to do the best they can to go wherever he might choose to go. Sometimes an audience and an artist will work out comfortable arrangements that history may unexpectedly change; the new generation coming now to Hayden's work seems less concerned with graded hierarchies of canonical worth than with the knowledges to be found in the diversity and inclusion now possible in American literature, after decades of struggle, in the streets and beyond. Part of the sound of Robert Hayden's voice is the sound of humility, of "What did I know, what did I know," of a man's struggle with limit and with shame, the sound of what he almost said but couldn't; it's as much for that gift as for any other that readers keep him near, both in rooms of solitary contemplation and in the noise of the whirlwind, when people start to stand together in the streets again.